By KIERAN FINNANE
This report provides more detail and some analysis of Cr Melky’s proposals, previewed and responded to by readers here. Among them are former councillor Sandy Taylor who calls for a review of council staffing numbers.
The road home will be bumpy – that’s the message Councillor Eli Melky takes from this photo of the Finke Desert Race, and that he chose to set the theme of his Coronavirus recovery package.
Actually, a “care, adapt and recovery” package.
The “care” would come in the short term, from a 5% rate reduction for 2020-21.
Based on 2019-20 figures Cr Melky calculates that this would cost council close to $750,000.
Adding to that loss in revenue, council looks set to also lose income from fees and charges – he estimates around $800,000 – as well as from from the hardship waiver of rates for one quarter, already an approved assistance measure.
If 20% of ratepayers apply for the waiver that will cost council more than $1m. And more could apply.
As Cr Melky foresees a negative effect on economy for “quite some time” – it won’t “just bounce back” with the advent of a vaccine – he also proposes a rate freeze, pegged at the current level, for 2021-22.
For business and commercial properties he is proposing a two-year rate freeze. The powerpoint he presented to his colleagues at last Tuesday’s virtual committees meetings didn’t put a figure on what this would cost council.
Some of the losses could be offset by reduced demand on council services.
The “adapt” phase of his plan would see council review services with a view to making savings.
The powerpoint contained quite a list. Some are, for the time being, stopped – for example, Correctional Services contract labour, budgeted at $92,700 pa. Others are operating differently – for instance the Public Library is closed is offering a remote order pick-up or delivery borrowing model, supported by volunteers. Its normal operations are budgeted at $450,000 pa.
Cr Melky’s calculations of expected savings are based on the total annual budgets of these various operations but who knows, at this point, how long the shutdown will last. (It’s expected that a serious review of restrictions won’t take place for a month, with the need to have in place greater testing and tracing capabilities and an improved ability for the health system to deal with local hotspot outbreaks – see this overview for the ABC.)
Cr Melky’s calculations also don’t take into account the cost of partial service delivery. Thus he errs on the generous side, putting council in front when it comes to balancing the budget.
Left: A bearded Cr Melky at last Tuesday’s meeting. He was mostly alone in the chambers, with other councillors calling in from home.
This seems to be in part what the “recovery” phase of his plan relies on, being in the black.
Putting that aside for a moment, he also calls for a review of current internally restricted revenue – money set aside for specific projects.
Three of these are the projects that Deputy Mayor Matt Paterson wants to draw funds from for his voucher scheme.
Cr Melky has been specifically critical of this, because these broad projects are among those already approved by council and at least partially funded, and which could contribute to the town’s economic recovery.
In DM Paterson’s sights are the Todd Mall Redevelopment ($2,849,360 reserved, from which the vouchers would take $1,430,515 ); Town Beautification ($810,406, vouchers – $500,00 ) and the City Deals Project ($949,785, vouchers – the whole lot).
There are more reserves (including close to $4m for the eventual relocation of the landfill), with a total value of over $20m.
So, with the annual budget in the black, by Cr Melky’s calculation, and these healthy reserved accounts intact, he is suggesting that in the recovery phase council become quite entrepreneurial: borrow up to 60% of a project’s value, with “the lowest lending rates in decades”, enter into public-private partnerships and build.
He mentions specifically a new Public Library, a multi-storey car park in the CBD incorporating residential and commercial premises, and other infrastructure for “future growth”.
Some councillors reacted to his apparent targeting of services and programs close to their hearts.
Left: Cr Catherine Satour at last Tuesday’s virtual meeting.
Cr Jamie de Brenni was alarmed to see the Alice Springs Collection in the list for review. It costs council $85,000 per annum for climate-controlled storage at the Araluen Arts Centre.
He certainly didn’t want to see the collection sold off and was also concerned about selling off parks, which he saw as another possibility implied by Cr Melky’s suggested review.
Cr Jimmy Cocking supported the idea of doing everything necessary to have “shovel ready projects” to take advantage of the Federal and NT Governments’ stimulus packages – especially projects that offer strategic value to the community.
He also thought there was some room to move with the reserves accounts – which ones should council retain, which ones aren’t necessary. And he supported having a look at rate relief.
Not surprisingly, though, Cr Cocking did not want to see any money taken from the climate action plan, another account nominated for review by Cr Melky.
Cr Melky said he was only asking to defer the plan, not get rid of it.
Nor was he suggesting a wholesale selling off of parks, only the “patches of dirt” that are not used by community and cost council money. Council needs to consider this “path”, he argued, as a way of generating income and not relying solely on ratepayers.
Cr Catherine Satour commented favourably on Cr Melky’s plan, which was backed by “considerable information”, in contrast to DM Paterson’s voucher scheme proposal, which she said lacked supporting documentation (it consisted of a single page).
CEO Robert Jennings said he would work with both proposals to further develop them for councillors’ consideration at the end of the month.