Kamikaze Kounzil

If you were a municipal council what would you do if: ratepayers were outraged by massive rate increases and a bloated overpaid bureaucracy (despite Government rate caps); faced a newly-formed, well-organised, well-resourced activist group; and, another activist group who had been trying to get you to adopt better governance systems and policies for a decade or so?

Most of us would think we ought to consider some different priorities and policies. But given that the council in question is the City of Port Phillip (CoPP), which the blog has sadly written about before, it did neither.

Instead, as the newly-formed local activist group said in an email to supporters: “On 16 October a majority of your elected representatives voted for a submission to the Victorian Government to remove the rates cap and allow additional levies and charges such as an ‘environmental levy’. If successful future rate increases will be unrestricted to whatever CoPP likes.” (sic)

Now the claim by the ratepayer group is not precisely correct even though reading the council submission gobbledygook to the Victorian Government Rating System Review it would be eminently reasonable to reach the conclusion the group did, even without the benefit of any French philosopher’s de-construction of the words.

What the council said was: “The current Act is too prescriptive. It is more appropriate for the Act to set a high-level framework and require all Councils to develop a community consulted rating strategy. This way, Councils have the autonomy to set rates and charges which are transparent and meet the needs of the community.” But putting aside any linguistic niceties it is hard to form any conclusion other than that they want to increase rates outside the cap restrictions.

As the blog has written, many times before, one can also imagine just how effective the City of Port Phillip would be at developing a “community consulted rating strategy.” Some consultants and pretty brochure designers might do well out of it but we know from experience that it would hardly be the way to achieve genuine community engagement and would probably add to the council’s record of worst practice community consultation methodology which readers can check out in blogs ad seriatim and later in this one.

There is no way the State Government will agree to the request but the council submission reminds the blog of a large multinational’s CEO who said about three of his management team who had done something controversial in Victoria – “dumb, dumb and dumber.”

The Victorian Government introduced rate caps to limit councils’ ability to gouge ratepayers. But when property valuations go up councils can keep rate increases within the cap while increasing the amount ratepayers actually have to pay. The rate cap restriction assumes councils will trim their demands but, unfortunately, doesn’t take into account councils like Port Phillip which use the increased valuations to up their take.

The newly-formed resident action group went on to claim – not quite as accurately as their nailing of the council obfuscation on rates was – that Port Phillip Council want even more rates revenue despite their spending already being excessive compared to neighbouring councils. They circulated at a council meeting a chart showing comparative revenue and expenditure amounts for Port Phillip and Bayside, Glen Eira, and Stonnington Councils. At the time it looked pretty awkward for Port Phillip as its expenditure was the highest of the four councils, even though Glen Eira has a substantially higher population.

However, the other group – the one arguing for better governance for years – actually did their homework and found that when you analyse the figures in detail, Port Phillip does a lot better than the activist group claimed when rate revenue is measured against the number of rateable properties. Glen Eira comes out lowest, with an average expenditure of $1,665 per property. Port Phillip has the second lowest expenditure at $1,732, then Stonnington at $1,793, and finally Bayside at $2,111. This after all is the number which is most real to most ratepayers.

This latter group has offered similar sensible advice many times but the council always seems to have some reason – such as spending time manoeuvring on who might be the new deputy mayor or mayor – not to heed it.

But back to community consultation. Parking is a massive problem in cities such as Port Phillip which are close to the CBD and are experiencing rapid development of new residential projects; and, in Port Phillip’s case the proliferation of commercial and light industrial premises in areas which have de-industrialised as automotive and other industries have disappeared from the municipality.

Which reminds us that Joe Hockey and the Government thrust out their chests – in Joe’s case so that it almost stuck out as far as his well-fed burgher type stomach – challenging the car manufacturing industry (including General Motors Holden which had been located in Port Phillip since 1936) to leave Australia. Needless to say they did and the hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives they had been enjoying were replaced by the billions and billions Australia is going to pay for new submarines which will become available (if they work) about when the blog’s pre-school granddaughter is retiring.

However, back to the council’s latest consultation exercise. The blog recently attended a community consultation meeting on a parking strategy for the city. There were more consultants and council staff than residents at the meeting and it started obstreperously when a number of residents complained about the council’s failure to publicise the process more widely.

The consultant running the show replied that there had been an article in the council newsletter – which naturally every ratepayer and resident breathlessly awaits at the front gate – and on the council website which prompted huge sighs from everyone who had ever tried to navigate it.

The residents then asked why some sort of leaflet hadn’t been delivered to every household, to which the consultant replied, that this would have cost $73,000. Curious about the figure the blog, when it got home, calculated what the $73k figure meant in terms of parking revenue. It was 1% of the current annual council parking revenue and 0.1% of the revenue (unadjusted for future inflation or increases in revenue) which would be earned over the period the new parking strategy would be in operation.

A council officer then introduced the strategy by drawing an analogy with his wife’s pregnancy ultrasound which apparently demonstrated that “change is an opportunity.” The blog felt this was just a bit too much sharing, even for a community engagement event, and left soon after.