By ERWIN CHLANDA
The conversation about Small Council vs Big Council has moved from a casual dinner chat to red alert status as the NT Government’s debt has reached record levels, a million dollars a day in interest payments, with little to show for it, especially in Alice Springs.
Time has clearly come for local government to play a major role, and Rex Mooney, retiring as Town Council CEO after a record sixteen and a half years, sees no reason why that couldn’t happen.
Mr Mooney is pictured with wife Janet during the reception marking his retirement. Mayor Damien Ryan is at the lectern.
It wasn’t his job to make decisions but to advise whether or not they could be made, and how they could be implemented.
In a nutshell, he makes it clear the council can be as powerful and as weak as it chooses to be.
In a conversation with the Alice Springs News, Mr Mooney said council by-laws are subject to government approval, but the council, by resolution, “can make any policy it deems appropriate”.
Right now all the policies are being reviewed.
The CEO can suggest policies, says Mr Mooney, “and the council would look to the CEO to present policies as appropriate to the circumstances.”
Funding for the town pool worth $16m from external sources was a major coup.
While a Small Council would stick with “roads, rates and rubbish” a Big Council would embrace issues ranging from flood mitigation, tourist promotion, land development to law and order issues.
We put to him some of the Big issues: The Rock is killing our tourism industry; the West and East MacDonnells remain well below their potential as a tourist attraction; a dozen highly picturesque ravines on the southern flank of the range, right in the middle of the municipality, 15 minutes’ walk from the tourism precinct, could keep tourists in town for an extra few days.
NEWS: The government has a sewage plant that covers two square kilometres, is evaporating water we’re running short of, while we could recycle it in a plant fitting into five hectares. The remaining 195 hectares, unencumbered by native title, could be used for an IT village, for example. Would that be a legitimate proposition to develop by the council, and invest its staff’s time in it?
MOONEY: Yes, that would be an administrative task that I and the staff would undertake under the direction of the council. And it’s also a two-way street. If the staff and myself thought there was a proposition worth looking at, that idea could be presented to the council.
NEWS: Have any such propositions been put to the council, or vice versa, in your 16 and a half years as the CEO?
MOONEY: Over the years we’ve looked at a number of exercises, at procurement of properties, or investments around town. That sort of thing.
NEWS: Can you give me actual examples?
MOONEY: I can’t do that. They did not proceed. They were commercial in confidence.
NEWS: At what rate were they being put forward?
Mr Mooney and Greg Buxton at the opening, 2011. Photo courtesy Town Council.
MOONEY: A lot were by-laws and policies. There are a lot of organisations around thinktanking about what’s best for Alice Springs.
NEWS: In you observation, are they coming up with much that’s useful?
MOONEY: We’ve had representatives on committees looking at our water allocation. We’ve had discussion with Power and Water. The council doesn’t have a resolution about water use but it has sought advice from P&W.
NEWS: There is still no resolution to the landfill which is bursting its seams still at the entrance to the town.
MOONEY: The council has approached the NT Government for suggestions of any other sites for a relocation. We have not been able to secure another site at this stage. The issue sits at the moment with the NT Government.
That government is about to take away from councils such powers as deciding on its boundaries, whether or not there should be a ward system, or how many elected members there should be. An external body will be making recommendations on these issues to the government, says Mr Mooney.
MacDonnell Ranges, dump & sewage plant
But local government in The Centre is flexing its muscle.
The landfill, squeezed between the sewerage plant and the range, is still looking for a new home.
Mr Mooney says it established CentreROC, made up of Alice Springs, MacDonnell, Central Desert and Barkly local governments “to explore exactly some of the questions you have been asking”.
NEWS: Which ones specifically?
MOONEY: Tourism, waste management, anti-social behaviour. It’s a group that doesn’t have a high profile but we have our common denominators. That’s the big picture thinking across the board. If our group makes a submission we can talk about a combined population, a combined expenditure of our councils. It gives us some collective weight.
The group, formed last year, has met only four times so far.
“I am a great believer the local council should have the authority to do these sorts of things because the councillors are the civic leaders. They know the pulse of the town,” says Mr Mooney.
The NT Government formulates the Local Government Act and in turn is responsible to the Federal Government “because we are a Territory, not a state. The councillors are the natural leaders but all has to be done in the context of the legislation.”
NEWS: Is there anything stopping the council from acting beyond its legislated powers, acting as a lobby, a pressure group for the town vis-a-vis the NT Government?
MOONEY: The council has been assertive in certain areas. There is no limit to council’s opportunity to lobby the NT Government, so long as it is supported by the right facts, figures and business cases, in other words, more than just ideas. There is nothing that could prevent council from looking at the landscape of Alice Springs generally, that it could not convey to the NT Government, within the reasonable bounds of guidelines.
NEWS: What guidelines?
MOONEY: Rather than just offering a broad idea of the council, it would have to have some data, some supporting facts, and there is nothing to stop the council from collecting these. And also to call on data from various government departments and private bodies. The council is not impeded from putting propositions to the NT Government.
NEWS: So far as the people are concerned whose culture it is meant to be celebrating, the Aboriginal art gallery Mark One was in the wrong spot. Mark Two – the current site of the civic centre – makes the same mistake. The rejection by traditional owners of any gallery site north of The Gap seems to be absolutely clear. As an advisor to the council, what is your message to it?
Opening of the Civic Centre. Seated: Mayor Kilgariff and Robyn Lambley, 2006. Photo courtesy Town Council.
MOONEY: What the council is aware of, there are conversations happening now with traditional owners, and we are told we will be advised of the outcome when those discussions are concluded. The council is awaiting the government to provide that information.
Mr Mooney lists the construction of the civic centre as one of his proud achievements although he stresses the kudos for it must equally go to the councillors and the staff: “I prefer to use the word ‘we’ to the word ‘I’.”
The decision about the civic centre had not been made when Mr Mooney joined the council in January 2003. A quote had been obtained.
“The staff was anxious in the old building. You closed the door and the whole wall would wobble.”
The green light for the $11.4m project, essentially a huge upgrade, with some extensions, of architect Andy McPhee’s original building, was given.
“It is now completely repaid. We have no other loans,” says Mr Mooney, who proudly names careful financial management as one of “our” achievements.
He says in 2018/19, close to $1.3m in external grant funds were obtained, for toilet blocks, fencing, various initiatives in the library: “That’s $1.3m the ratepayers aren’t asked to provide.
“I’m proud of the financial strength of the council.
“We cleaned out the cupboard of all our available funds to pay for the civic centre, but we managed to keep a reasonable level of rate increases in subsequent years.
The library and the civic centre are in limbo as Plan B of the NT Government is unfolding – slowly.
“That building is there for future generations.”
Fast forward to today, he adds: “Albeit there are other discussions on the table.”
These of course are around the latest bright idea of the Gunner Government, to presumably bulldoze the 15 year old civic centre (as the world is mourning the fire damage to the 850 year old Notre Dame in Paris), put in its place the “national” Aboriginal art gallery, and give the council the out-of-sight Anzac Hill precinct site, rejected by the traditional owners as a place for the gallery.
Mr Mooney says this is where the issue is at: The council would get from the government the new site and a library: “Our understanding is the library figure is around $30m,” he says.
NEWS: That does not include the cost for a new civic centre, if the swap goes ahead.
NEWS: The council would need to negotiate for a new civic centre?
MOONEY: The offer is, there would be a negotiated swap for the civic centre precinct, bounded by our four roads, and there would be a new library provided. On top of that there is a need for a town hall, and a new civic centre and office accommodation for the staff. That’s not a straight forward exercise.
NEWS: What is yet to be resolved is the amount the council will need to receive from the NT Government for those facilities?
MOONEY: That’s the issue at hand at the moment. Council has had the site valued. It has not been resolved.
NEWS: When will the broader community be brought into the discussions?
MOONEY: Discussions are at a relatively early stage. I am unable to provide any time line until we hear back from the government. Council has made it very clear there will be consultation with the community.
Mr Mooney says the situation of Alice Springs is unique: “We are the only municipality that has a native title over the whole municipality. In many ways we are landlocked.
“What the council needs is more subdivisions, more developed land, more rateable land in addition to our nine and a half thousand rateable properties.
“What’s good for council is more rateable land.”
NEWS: Owen Springs adjoins the municipal area to the south-west. It is 1500 square kilometres, owned by the people of the Northern Territory. Can the municipality be extended in that direction?
MOONEY: It certainly can be discussed.
NEWS: Is it being discussed?
MOONEY: Not actively now, but there is nothing to prevent such a conversation from taking place. Bearing in mind though, the council has its legal requirements within the boundaries of Alice Springs Municipality.
NEWS: One would imagine we’re working together with the NT Government.
MOONEY: Absolutely. There would be nothing preventing the Mayor and CEO from discussing those issue
What is also good for the town is visitation – the events, what draws people here, says Mr Mooney: “The big vision for Alice Springs is the Outback Way. When that’s a sealed road between Cairns and Perth, Alice Springs won’t know itself. The town’s future will be secured.”
NEWS: The $24m of Federal money spent on the South Stuart Highway railway overpass and the $10m upgrade of the North Stuart Highway – neither of them remotely necessary – could have paid for the sealing of 100 km of the Outback Way. Would these have been occasions when the council puts its foot down, vis-a-vis the NT and Federal governments? The Boulia Shire, just across the Queensland border, can seal roads for $300,000 a kilometre – a third of what contractors charge the NT Government.
MOONEY: There are lots of theories about that, the types of soil, the availability of heavy plant and equipment, all that comes into it.
Mr Buxton, Lyndon Frearson and Mr Mooney during the construction of the Mall, 2012. Photo courtesy Town Council.
NEWS: This is a Big Council issue, isn’t it?
MOONEY: We’ve had responses on that. It’s the terrain, it’s getting equipment on site. There are explanations that we had provided to us.
NEWS: The Boulia Shire says if they go across the border they’ll still charge $300,000 a kilometre. The Plenty Highway is a good dirt road. It just needs the bitumen put on it.
MOONEY: Coming into the Boulia Shire from Alice Springs, now that’s rough. There’s a number of factors there. Outback Way Inc is very aware of these discrepancies.
NEWS: Is there the resolve to push it ahead? The Outback Way has been on the drawing board for 25 years.
MOONEY: Most governments now of all political persuasions are aware of the importance of the Outback Way. It is now getting some traction. We can discuss the cost per kilometre but it’s a great position to be in, we now have the money to talk about it.
Another coup during Mr Mooney’s was the Aquatic and Leisure Centre – better known as the town pool.
There was a $8m offer from the NT Government, while a report commissioned by the council put the price at “$12m and rising. Mayor Fran Kilgariff and I and elected members worked on a couple of plans. One was through the Aboriginal Benefit Account and one was through the Federal Government.
“We received another $4m from the Aboriginal Benefit Account and $4m from the Federal Government.
“It’s a bit like owning a farm. If you own it outright you can weather the storm in some bad years, and whilst the centre is expensive to run, we are not servicing a debt.”
Having strong governance, strong internal control, everything from finance to HR to a good workplace, were main objectives during his term, says Mr Mooney.
“I gave a few days a year to working in the depot, go out collect litter, or go with the parks crew out on the reserves. That way I knew the staff. I regard myself as the glue, in many respects – in all modesty.”
There are now six employees who have been with the council 25 years. There are 177 full time staff, 200 if including casuals; about 40% are in the outside workforce.
Mr Mooney looks back fondly at the Solar City project.
“Council was the only local government proponent at the time. We attracted $40m in funding and the Charles Darwin University independent report said it created a $100m economic benefit to Alice Springs.
“We had a general manager and 10 staff. Regrettably, neither the NT nor the Federal governments were in a position to continue funding. Council is currently investigating further solar initiatives, and hopes to release further details in the neat future.”
Janet and Rex Mooney are staying in town and he will continue playing with the band In Tatters.