Having had time to analyse the NSW Government’s stimulus package for councils, Kiama Council’s General Manager says that it will have very little impact on its financial situation.
“Council does not qualify for the job retention assistance, as we have been able to successfully redeploy our staff,” says Kerry McMurray.
The option to take up low interest loans for projects is still being considered, keeping in mind the need to repay them at a future point.
A hoped for increase in the level of Financial Assistance Grants given to councils
has not yet eventuated, despite strong lobbying to the Federal Government by Local Government NSW and equivalent bodies.
There is, however, an opportunity from the NSW stimulus package for a substantial boost to the local economy if Council is successful in getting special infrastructure grant funding for the long awaited Kiama Arts Precinct.
The $19 million project, centred around the Old Fire Station and the newly acquired former ambulance station, is at the DA stage. This means it qualifies as being ‘shovel ready’, a requirement of the grants.
“As well as being a much needed facility for our community, its construction would obviously have a big multiplier effect and give our economy a significant boost,” says Mr McMurray.
“It would be an important factor in creating jobs and demand, and leave a lasting legacy.”
It is by far the largest local project eligible for grant funding, but consideration is being given to applying for money for smaller capital works.
“In finalising next year’s budget, we are trying to keep as many capital works projects on the books as possible, as we mindful of generating employment and income for suppliers,” says Mr McMurray.
The 2020/1 budget will go to councillors for consideration in May, and Mr McMurray says candidly that, as outlined in previous issues, “It’s not looking pretty.”
He says that despite this, people need not brace themselves for cuts in services.
“Whilst I have a deficit that I need to look to reduce for the next financial year, it will be more about streaming back costs internally.
“That approach will continue for the next couple of years.”
Mr McMurray is playing a very hands on role in the budget preparations, given his background as the architect of Council’s Fit for the Future success and the departure of the Director Corporate and Commercial Services, Rob Owen, in February.
As Mr McMurray puts it, “The organisation elected to go in a different direction, and as a result Rob has chosen to leave.”
David Mead is acting in the Director role, which will not be advertised in the foreseeable future due to a freeze on recruitment as part of the COVID-19 risk management process.
With regard to Council’s rate relief package, where rates can be deferred without interest being charged, Mr McMurray says it is still too early to assess what the take up will be.
He regrets an unfortunate error that resulted in those who pay their rates via direct debit being charged a month early.
“It was identified quickly, with the direct debits being reversed within 12 hours after that,” he says.
“Affected ratepayers have been contacted, and we have offered to pay any dishonour fees.”
Apart from dealing with the financial fallout of COVID-19, the General Manager is spending a great deal of time working on organisational planning for the future.
“This pandemic has changed things for good,” he says, firmly believing that the four square metre rule and social distancing will be the new norm.
“We are looking hard at what will this organisation look like going forward, in terms of its interaction with the community?
“For example, we are investing significant money now and over the next 12 months to build a new website from the ground up, to encourage and enable increased transactions online.”
He says that Council’s Administration Building is simply not big enough to house staff under the new safety ratio.
“It has been very strongly reinforced that this building isn’t fit for purpose.
“While it is always an unpopular decision to build a larger council administration centre, we are going to be in the situation where there really is no choice.”
He believes businesses in town are facing the same hard choices, as they take a pandemic resiliance approach rather than return to business as normal.
At time of writing, Council is still waiting to hear the rules governing the reopening of playgrounds and exercise equipment.
“If our 36 playgrounds and 65 pieces of outdoor equipment need to be cleaned every day, costs will mean we may have to limit which ones we open,” he says.