By Colin MacGillivray
MITCHELL Shire Council last week voted to adopt its 2021-22 budget, along with a 10-year financial plan and four-year rating and revenue plan, despite only tepid support from some councillors.
The budget includes a capital works program of $23.95 million for the next 12 months, including more than $8.3 million for roads, footpaths and bridges.
Major roads projects funded include: a pedestrian crossing upgrade for Lithgow Street in Beveridge; a new school crossing in Wallan East; design works for new traffic lights at the intersection of Tootle Street and the Northern Highway in Kilmore; design works for a new link road for Kilmore’s John Street; and an upgrade for Sugarloaf Creek Road near Broadford.
Chief executive Brett Luxford said council had to ‘remain flexible and adaptable over the past year in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic – introducing various community support programs, such as free online gym classes, and adjusting our budgets to account for reduced revenue’.
The budget projects an underlying surplus of about $620,000.
While councillors recognised the budget was ‘financially responsible’ and did a good job of managing the region’s COVID-19 recovery, some were critical of the amount of funding allocated for roads.
Cr Bill Chisholm said a carry-forward of capital works from the previous budget obfuscated the real amount of road spending.
“I was on the fence in a lot of ways on this document. My main concern is roads, and especially for the outlying and rural areas in the north,” he said.
“We are, long-term, at least acknowledging the issue and putting extra money towards this problem, but I’ve still got a problem with what we spend on the unsealed roads program.
“We had allocated in the draft budget $200,000. There was an extra $600,000 put into that, which brought it up to $800,000, but that was carry-forwards from the previous year that got altered around.
“We’ve got over $2 million in carry-forwards from the previous year, so we’re actually only spending $5.5 million on the roads.”
Cr Chisholm said infrastructure maintenance and the ratings burden placed on rural communities in the north of the shire were also among his concerns.
Cr Rob Eldridge said he ‘thought long and hard’ before deciding to support the budget.
“I am not happy with the way we allocate money across the shire. However, we have made such great steps forward in terms of the way we go about it and the staff have put a hell of a lot of effort into making those advances,” he said.
“What we need in the future is a quantum leap though, not a step. We need to look at our total budget.
“At the moment we really only look at our capital works budget and we have a shortfall across the shire in many basic services, not just in the north but in the central and south [wards].”
Cr Louise Bannister said she wanted the budget to be more transparent and easy to understand.
“We are in a shire with a small rates base and a large geographical area to cover for services and infrastructure,” she said.
“We need to be meticulous with our budget to ensure we get the most out of every dollar and provide our community with the infrastructure and services it needs to thrive.
“I believe we can only do this if we have a transparent budget that also reviews in detail our operational expenses.”
Cr Annie Goble said she understood other councillors’ concerns but supported the budget and rating plan.
“I know roads are important, and every time we go out to the community that and footpaths is probably the highest, but we’ve got a limited budget and there is so much else that we need to deliver and maintain,” she said.
“Farmers … actually receive a discount on their rates of between 10 and 20 per cent depending on the size of their property.”
Cr Fiona Stevens said she was pleased by the level of community input on the budget.
“There were 38 submissions received and 91 ideas and requests amongst that. Out of those, 28 are included or planned to be pursued within the 2021-22 financial year, with another 16 included within the four years of this budget,” she said.
“Every single year we get footpaths and roads brought before us, and I agree 100 per cent with the comments of Cr Chisholm … in relation to this. We have to start reflecting the community wishes in the budget more in this area, otherwise we’re not doing our jobs.”
The budget and ratings and financial plans were passed, with Cr Chisholm the only councillor to vote against them.
People can view the budget, financial and ratings plans by visiting www.mitchellshire.vic.gov.au/about-council/council-documents/budget.