Association takes aim at rising council staff costs

Acommunity lobby group made numerous face-to-face criticisms of the Wattle Range Council draft annual budget at a special council meeting in Millicent last week.

The Penola-based group said it feared the council was either not being transparent or was negligent but both opinions were strongly refuted by council chief executive Ben Gower.

As required by the Local Government Act, the council held the extraordinary forum lasting almost 90 minutes on Tuesday to consider feedback on its draft 2022/23 budget.

The Riddoch Business and Community Association represents the Penola and Coonawarra towns and districts and it responded to the 89 page council document with a six-page submission of its own.

PBCA representative Simone Kain made the claims about the council during her presentation and pointed out that around 45% of its $31.1m draft budget was allocated to employee costs.

Ms Kain said the council was looking to grow its number of employees by 17 within the space of two years.

She urged the council to redirect its employee costs into such operating projects as outlined in the masterplans for Penola and Millicent.

However, Mr Gower said benchmarking showed Wattle Range Council staff numbers were around the state average and this did not take into account the 22 employees at the Gladys Smith Early Learning Centre in Millicent.

Mr Gower said the council’s capital works budget had grown from $5.5m in 2007 to $12.7m in 2022 and so additional staff and resources were needed to implement it.

For example, he said the number of graders for roadworks had grown from four to six.

Mr Gower said he always sought the backing of council for the additional staff and resources.

According to Mr Gower, council outsourced various functions where it was appropriate to do so such as waste management and swimming facilities maintenance.

Mr Gower said it was prudent to bring building maintenance in-house and so council now employed a builder, a plumber and an electrician.

He said extra staff had to be employed to mow the areas around Glencoe as this was an equity issue.

Elected members supported the statements of Mr Gower.

Councillor Dale Price said it may be difficult to understand some of council’s decisions when looking from the outside.

“We have to take a holistic approach and not be parochial,” Cr Price said.

“We took a long-term view when we decided to purchase Burchard’s Quarry at Tantanoola.”

Cr John Drew said Wattle Range councillors had to consider the entire area when making their decisions.

“Some compromises are needed, “Cr Drew said.

Deputy Mayor Councillor Moira Neagle also responded to Ms Kain’s assertion that spending $520,000 was unwarranted on the 70-year-old former classrooms at the rear of the Millicent National Trust Museum.

“The museum upgrade is desperately needed,” Cr Neagle said.

There were 12 other members of the public present in the public gallery and a number aired their opinions about the draft budget.

Rendelsham farmer Don Gilbertson said a greater rate burden unfairly fell on Wattle Range due to State Government decisions about rating and valuation of the large areas of its forest land leased to OneFortyOne Plantations.

Tantanoola farmer Peter Altschwager said the consumer price index had risen by 11.6% in the past six years while his rates had lifted by 55.6% in this period.

“The spin from Wattle Range Council astounds me,” Mr Altschwager said.

He claimed one barely-used road at Tantanoola had received extensive attention from the council while another had no major work since the days of the Tantanoola District Council which ended in 1975.

As well as the verbal feedback about the draft budget, council also formally received and noted six letters.

Mr Gower said he would consult with his senior staff and the elected members and then send a written response to those who made submissions on the draft budget.

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