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The Struggle for Surplus in Regional Queensland

Mayor’s Desk – 5 October 2017

You may remember a few months ago I wrote about attending a parliamentary hearing about forecasting long term sustainability of local government. Our attendance at this hearing came about after a Queensland Audit Office report found that 24/77 councils in Queensland have forecast deficits for the next ten years, with North Burnett being one of them. We decided to attend the hearing to give our side of the story which basically goes like this: Six councils rolled into one, massive geographic region, limited rate base, no predicted growth and almost $1 billion dollars in assets to maintain, we will always struggle to achieve a surplus.

Further to this hearing, this week council is now spending two days with the Queensland Audit Office (QAO) being audited on our rating processes. One council from each of these five categories (coastal, resources, rural/regional, rural/remote and SEQ) has been chosen to take part in this audit. We will be providing information on behalf of the rural/regional Councils.

QAO will be auditing how we set rates; the process for increasing them; the key drivers for rates and charges within the region; the assumptions we make in calculating, a review of our differential rating categories and our policies and procedures, along with many other aspects.

It’s a funny business we are in as Councillors’. As part of our local government legislation we have been charged with levying rates to help meet the costs of providing municipal services and obviously the audit will be a great tool to help us do this as fairly as possible.

Another part of our legislation states that parliament requires us to abide by the principle of sustainable development and management of assets and infrastructure, and delivery of effective services (this issue of “sustainability” is the part the State is trying to work out with their hearing and investigations). And yet another part of our legislation requires us to abide by the principles of democratic representation, social inclusion and meaningful community engagement.

My issue with all of this is…what happens when those two principles oppose each other?

Our community tells us rates are at the peak of affordability now, so what happens when the State tells us we need to run a sustainable council (under legislation) and we need to increase our rates substantially in order to be in surplus? Who wins? Either the Councillor make the decision to not put Council in surplus (and leaves themselves open to be put into administration) OR the Councillor increases rates (and leaves themselves open to be accused of ignoring the principles of democratic representation). In my opinion no one wins and this is why I’m investing so much time and energy into helping the State see and ideally understand the quandary we have in regional Queensland.