Meet the candidates: Bega Valley council hopefuls answer your questions

As the local government election approaches - December 4 - we went to candidates campaigning in the Bega Valley Shire with a series of questions inspired by our readers.

A poll taken over the course of several days following the candidate ballot draw highlighted five key topics on which our readers wished to know more from candidates.

Each of the 18 candidates were sent the same list of questions based on these five key areas, with the same deadlines for responding and word limits requested.

Their answers for questions one and two were published last week, with questions 3-5 asked to be returned by 9am Monday, November 22.

Those who did so are published below, in ballot order.

The Questions

3. Heritage and timber bridges. How important to you is the shire's history and heritage? What will you do as a councillor to preserve it? How will you reconcile community interest in heritage with practical considerations around cost/development/safety/resilience - eg the Tathra-Bermagui Rd timber bridges?

4. Finances. Council faces challenges in the next term finding the balance between what the community would like to see and how much money there is to spend. There are a number of infrastructure projects without funding at this stage ie Bega Pool renewal, projects that have funding but it probably won't be sufficient ie sporting facilities, and grants for infrastructure that will run out of money because costs and materials are going up exponentially. How will you advocate to deal with these issues? What are your thoughts on special rate variations, returning grants if there's not sufficient money to do the job and borrowing in the current low interest environment?

5. Provision and maintenance of public infrastructure. (This was covered in several ways by readers given the wide scope of council-managed infrastructure - roads, parks, playgrounds, native vegetation and wildlife corridors etc) What do you feel is the most important infrastructure council can offer its residents? How will you work towards provision of such and where is more focus needed?

LABOR - HELEN O'NEIL and SIMON DALY

Helen O'Neil

Helen O'Neil

Simon Daly

Simon Daly

Heritage and Timber Bridges

The history of Bega Valley, beginning with the living cultural legacy of the Yuin people, is an invaluable asset for today and for the future. We want our children and grandchildren to be able to see and touch our history. We also want visitors to be able to experience our heritage - cultural tourism will help us diversify our economic base. Council has a responsibility to preserve important buildings and landscapes - because once destroyed or demolished, they can't be replaced.

Importantly, council must consult with the community, and listen to what people are saying is important to them. This was a big part of the problem created by the old council in relation to the timber Cuttagee Bridge. It simply announced a decision, without any prior community consultation. The Labor team for Bega Valley is committed to a council that will consult, discuss and collaborate. The Wharf to Wharf walk recently opened between Tathra and Merimbula is a great example of what can be done to preserve and enhance our story.

Finances

Council must keep rates as low as possible. In a big rural shire like ours, we don't have the ratepayer base to fund every project or satisfy every request. But we also have to acknowledge the huge demands facing our community right now: bushfire recovery and climate change, affordable housing, infrastructure needs.

State and federal governments must and should support us through this unprecedented period and can lessen the threat of rate increases. But the reality is the local government funding model is fundamentally broken. Bega Valley is under strain as federal funding has been cut.

Labor is arguing that council needs to set its clear priorities - and be a powerful voice for our community with regional, state and federal partners. Given the prospect of rising interest rates in future years, the window is closing on a period of ultra-low-cost borrowing.

Council staff is developing options for the business plan covering the next council term. The Labor team expects this work to include a robust risk assessment, so the incoming council makes decisions that are prudent. It is vital that the nine councillors looking at this are prepared to consult, discuss and collaborate so they come up with clear decisions for our future.

Some of the other candidates in this election claim to have a magic pudding: they are promising lower rates and more services. Voters should not take them seriously.

Public Infrastructure

As noted above, our community is facing huge demands right now. Council needs to get back on track, and start to focus on the community again, not on itself. There's the maintenance of existing community facilities and roads, but we have to look at the necessary upgrades in water and sewage, the resilience projects needed in bushfire recovery. Many of these projects are actually local solutions for climate change - including better use of renewables in our energy mix such as dealing with water quality and waste treatment. The experience of the Merimbula outfall project shows that engagement with community and an open approach to bringing in expert advice can lead to lower costs and better outcomes for the environment.

More focus is needed in relation to affordable housing. We can't take advantage of the options for new jobs and business unless we provide appropriate shelter for our existing and arriving residents. The council's draft strategy on housing has some common-sense proposals but we're facing a crisis that demands some immediate responses. We're proposing a summit or roundtable of private, public and non-profit housing providers to get some short-term responses while the draft strategy work continues through into 2022.

Here's an area where partnership on infrastructure is the key - private sector, state and federal agencies and the community sector can bring resources together and look at efficiencies.

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GREENS - CATHY GRIFF

Cathy Griff

Cathy Griff

Heritage and Timber Bridges

The Greens work to protect our rare heritage - timber bridges are a unique and valuable feature of this region. The Greens are keen on use of low emission materials such as timber - we need research and a feasibility study to compare the advantages of timber in terms of cost and resilience. It should not be assumed concrete is preferable overall. There are outstanding examples of modern cost effective and safe timber structures. I regularly highlight to our tourist operators the attraction of heritage as a key visitor drawcard. Undoubtedly, if Cuttagee and the chain of bridges are restored, holiday-makers would make a trip especially to visit these bridges and other historic structures including the Royal Willows Hotel in Pambula. All elements of our tourist economy stand to benefit from heritage.

Finances

The Greens view of finances stresses fiscal responsibility and transparency. There are some key points to take into account: the majority of councils are in a similar if not worse position than Bega Valley since funding is insufficient for their growing list of functions. The stories circulating of our financial crisis were not well explained. The situation is far improved; consider operating result, cash reserves and value of assets versus liabilities. Limited debt in this low interest market is acceptable for a council providing essential services and infrastructure in the face of fires, floods and pandemic.

I am not in favour of returning grants though projects can be trimmed. Unfortunately government funding these days is frequently via grants. Not accepting grants would jeopardise future applications. Rate variations are understandably loathed by the community. The goal would be to avoid them but in reality it will depend on balancing future necessities.

Public Infrastructure

Bega Valley Shire has responsibility for a vast network of public infrastructure including of course essential water and sewerage services (separately charged to rates in most urban councils). The council's Clean Energy Plan needs to be implemented so that costs reduce for electricity via solar.

There are several significant projects which have been underway for years and budgets already committed including vital upgrades to Eden port, the airport, Merimbula ocean outfall and the regional gallery. Incoming councillors need to learn the historical context of works underway before seeking new directions. Far from being confined to a specific pathway, this just means fresh ideas need to be applied with a view of what has been achieved and how best to complete major works.

I have advocated for more shared pathways because they fulfil so many functions for 'active transport', linking communities, tourist attraction, and well-being.

GREENS - VIVIAN HARRIS

Vivian Harris

Vivian Harris

Heritage and Timber Bridges

One of the reasons visitors are attracted to our region is our built and natural heritage. In other parts of the eastern coast of Australia it has already been destroyed and coastal towns increasingly all look the same. Greens support preserving our Bega Valley heritage. The Greens support the bridges being raised to the necessary standards for access by emergency vehicles by using timber and preserving the heritage of the bridge.

Finances

I agree that there are financial challenges ahead. As we are hit by increasing climate fuelled disasters it will be hard to keep building back and recovering. We need to prioritise projects that give multiple wins for climate resilience, health, nature, basic needs and protecting vulnerable people. We need to have hard conversations with communities about what are the priorities with limited money. Nobody likes borrowing or rate variations but it is false economy to not spend money on strengthening our infrastructure and community. We are dependent on state and federal grants to get some essential upgrades done but if ballooning costs outrun the amount of grant money then unless the work was essential I would consider giving the grant back.

Public Infrastructure

The most important infrastructure that the council offers its residents are water treatment plants and sewerage plants and bridges that keep us connected. Since these are vital to our health and safety we need to make sure that they are designed to handle the challenges ahead. Reducing ongoing water and sewerage costs by installing solar (as per council's Clean Energy Plan) will save us money long term. A network of shared pathways within towns so that it is easy to do short trips on foot, bike, scooter or with a pram. A network of shared pathways between towns so that we attract sustainable tourism and locals can commute despite rising fuel prices. Protecting our waterways and lakes with native vegetation provides numerous benefits to our health, our oyster farmers and native wildlife.

KAREN WRIGHT

Karen Wright

Karen Wright

Heritage and Timber Bridges

Once relics of our past are gone, they are gone forever. Within my policies I have mentioned heritage tourism as a drawcard to the region, with case in point being the new Bega heritage walks. My aim is to support the restoration of Cuttagee Bridge, and in doing so precedent saving the other four timber bridges on the Tathra-Bermagui road. I commend the effort by council to make South Imlay St, Eden a heritage conservation area, and would love this to be extended to places like Boyd Tower. It is a shame this did not occur for the Royal Willows, and losing this part of history is something I do not want to see. It would be fantastic to have council support behind the shire's museums and genealogy societies.

Finances

Council can make good sustainable financial decisions, through better, on the ground community consultation. We should not be reactive when making decisions, and we should have good policy to support this. This includes decisions on roads, acquiring and selling properties and 'trimming the fat' in terms of reducing debt. Our infrastructure needs to be upgraded and maintained and we should be pushing state and federal government for regional funding, especially while the costs of materials are skyrocketing. As a 2x ratepayer I know our rates are the highest in the state but council also provides myriad services for the whole community which I don't want to be cut. I want to be a councillor that is representative of the wider community, not just the ratepayers as all residents need value from council. Sometimes we do need to borrow if it is for the greater good, an example of this is Twyford Hall borrowing to complete their project. We should be looking at long term options like investing in solar on council infrastructure to reduce the running costs, and removing bureaucratic red tape that passes down costs to the community.

Public Infrastructure

Being a mum of young children, infrastructure for kids and youth are very important to me, particularly for youth as this is severely lacking across the shire. We love our pools, parks and our playgrounds, especially the fantastic new ones that have been built accessible to all from the get go and this should be the model going forward. On that note, accessibility for all council infrastructure is a must, to avoid disasters like the boat ramp at Blackfellow's Lake and the new footbridge in Merimbula that have disturbed many people in the community. Our sports facilities must be upgraded and maintained to help create a healthy and active community. Having had my road in front of my house replaced five times in two years, I will question the efficacy of how things are currently done, and what needs to be done to make sure they are done right the first time. Residents in the outer villages like Bemboka, Kiah and Wonboyn are still waiting on road and bridge repairs and we should be prioritising these.

NATHAN O'DONNELL

Nathan O'Donnell

Nathan O'Donnell

Heritage and Timber Bridges

The maintenance of our local heritage is of vital importance, once it is lost it's gone for ever. We must work towards ensuring that council financials are returned to good health, only then will we be in the position to spend the money required to preserve our local landmarks of heritage value. In the end it comes back to proper management of the communities money, ending the waste and taking the decisions that will ultimately return our shire to a position of strength.

Finances

Obviously the community has every right to the expectation that community facilities will be built, maintained and improved in the coming council term. As pointed out this task will be difficult due to a number of factors. One thing is certain, council must never walk away from it's responsibly to provide services and infrastructure to the community it is elected to serve. Once again a disciplined fiscal approach, a council working as a team and a respect for the communities money are all keys to turning the ship around. Taking on extra borrowing must always be a last resort in my view.

Public Infrastructure

The improvement and maintenance of our local road network is in my view a key responsibility of any local council, I regard this as a very priority. In the case of children's play grounds in the shire, they are a wonderful addition to our local community and are always to be encouraged. Our sports fields must also be a priority, they are a community hub & they contribute so much to the physical & mental health of the entire community, especially our kids. In the end the provision of this type of public infrastructure should always be a top line priority for any well functioning council.

RUSSELL FITZPATRICK

Russell Fitzpatrick

Russell Fitzpatrick

Heritage and Timber Bridges

Currently the state government has a program called Fixing Country Bridges which Bega Valley Shire has been successful in obtaining funding to fix several of it's timber bridges. The program is limited in the way bridges can be replaced and also work must be completed within a two year time frame. This creates numerous problems for council, as can be seen with the Cuttagee Bridge, where council has had to decline the funding offered.

It is vital that our transport routes be accessible at all times and that we build them to mitigate climate conditions. The cost of ongoing maintenance is also a large problem and council needs to build infrastructure with ongoing maintenance costs in mind.

As for the shire's history, being a fourth generation family of the Bega Valley, I am always mindful of our past.

Finances

An examination of council's financial position over the past 10 years shows that council has little surplus funds to spend on new infrastructure. Almost all new infrastructure has come from state and federal government grants and considering Bega Valley Shire's small rate base (number of ratepayers) this will continue. Council needs to be attentive to spending and ongoing costs with grant funded infrastructure.

For example, funding was announced three years ago (sportsgrounds) but by the time council received the funding deed and did all the design work the costs of the projects had increased substantially. This has been further inflated by current building costs.

I have already advocated to the funding bodies about this problem and will continue to do so when full costings are provided through the tender process. The last thing anyone wants to see is a reduction in the scope of works that results in a sub standard facility that they have waited so long for.

The Bega pool renewal will require federal government or state government funding, otherwise a special variation will need to be looked at.

Borrowing in the current low interest environment might sound beneficial, but only if the purpose of the borrowing generates enough income to cover interest and repayments. Otherwise, a reduction in council services may result.

Public Infrastructure

The current priority is to complete the $85m capital expenditure proposed in the Operation Plan 2021/2022 and shire wide and includes:

Airport $15.7m

Water Services $15.4m

Sewer Services $9.7m

Roads $8m

Sportsgrounds $8m

Wharves/Jetties/Boat Ramps $7.4m

Bridges $5.2m

Waste Services $2.8m

Parks Gardens $880,000

Footpaths $611,700

Drainage $295,270

Cycleways $220,000

Any infrastructure and service that makes life easier and more enjoyable is worthy of council support. The challenge for council staff and councillors is the funding of the new infrastructure and the ongoing maintenance costs. More focus needs to be around the "Build Back Better" slogan. It's a great idea, but funding provided from government in disasters only builds back what was there previously. Funding and infrastructure needs to be about building resilience and mitigation prior to and not after events.

TONY ALLEN

Heritage and Timber Bridges

My family settled here in Cobargo (Galba) in 1872 and I am still farming the original selection so of course history and heritage is important to me. However having regard to the Cobargo bridge catching fire nearly two years ago and the catastrophe that it may have caused if the fire was not extinguished: One can only hope the bridge is quickly replaced by a new fire proof structure. The shire has approximately 60 wooden bridges mostly very old and needing replacement. Replacement funding will mainly come from state government and that body will determine what components will be used. Council has offered to form a consultation committee to work with staff re the Cuttagee Bridge however funding will be the issue as council certainly does not have the sort of money needed to replace this or other bridges on the Tathra-Bermagui Road. Council has adopted a resilience strategy that indicates a Build Back Better philosophy.

Finances

Council in 2012 led by Britten and Taylor abandoned the financial plan, went on a spendathon with purchasing buildings which in turn led to an unplanned blowout in borrowings. In effect this made it difficult for council to fulfil service needs such as road repair, toilets, playgrounds etc. The last five years council has endeavoured and succeeded in reducing the debt, but there has been a major reduction in services and we have had to tighten the budget considerably to the point that we are cash strapped.

Public Infrastructure

In my 19 years on council I have been constantly referred to as the "Roads Roads Roads Councillor". However my great disappointment is that in 2012 at the first meeting of the new council, Britten orchestrated a rescission motion which stopped the first stage of the Merimbula airport extension. The contractor was on the job and the money was in the bank to do the job. Nine years later and we are just now doing this work as a huge cost blowout of millions of dollars, a lot of which has now to be borrowed.

Council will continue to struggle to meet community expectations in terms of maintaining their assets while we have huge borrowings to be repaired as a result of poor policy in 2012.

DAVID PORTER

David Porter

David Porter

Heritage and Timber Bridges

As a Bega born local, the heritage of the shire is my family history as well. I advocate for the preservation of our heritage while also respecting the difficult decisions involving the balance of private ownership, public interest and budgets. I love old stories like when my father planted the poplar trees on the entrance to Bega with his Rotary Club. I have served as a trustee to a heritage site in Bega and found sometimes doing nothing was the best option. Since my childhood, my favourite items of heritage are our old one land bridges, I personally love them, I drive the Tathra-Bermagui Road frequently and enjoy them immensely.

I would like to lead a proactive approach that encapsulates these locations into a tourism plan, starting with the application for a grant to develop the "Five Bridges Tourist Drive Masterplan" on the Tathra-Bermagui Road. The masterplan would be developed to become a template for other roads with special or unique assets, sights or views.

We must be realistic in the use, maintenance and cost of these assets, but by giving them a purpose such as tourism we can embrace our heritage as strategic assets, now and into the future.

Finances

There is a well known expression "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." The inefficiencies of a bureaucracy make it expensive and inefficient to operate, no matter how we cut budgets and reduce services the results will have minimum impact and our rates will continue to skyrocket.

The answer to our dilemma is to transform council into a service organisation, flatten the structure, empower staff, replace authority with accountability and wrap it up in an enforceable code of ethics and conduct. The proven model for this transformation is Service NSW, which has now also been embraced by the federal government as well and would be a game changer for our local community.

Five years ago obtaining an owner builder permit from the Dept of Fair Trading took 6-8 weeks while it was passed around through multiple departments much like getting a DA processed through council. Now, under Service NSW it's delivered in a blistering 48 hours and the government employees have never been happier.

With 30 years of business process reengineering and quantity standards implementation, I will be a catalyst for change together with the new CEO. The transformation of council will reduce is operating expenditure and increase it its efficiency while improving satisfaction levels in staff and the community, this will ultimately take the pressure off councils finances and reduce the need for rate increases and special rate variations.

Public Infrastructure

Over the last few months I have noticed overgrown parks and gardens and a feeling in the smaller towns of being forgotten by council. I am proposing a re-evaluation of councils committees especially those operating under section 355 of the Local Government Act. In years gone by, area committees saw that our towns were well represented in every aspect and the community had a certain level of responsibility in the maintenance of the town, now is a perfect time to evaluate and build on the involvement of the community. This would also assist with areas of land where several agencies point at each other over the responsibility for maintenance.

Councillors need to be stronger advocates for critical infrastructure, such as the bridge into Wonboyn that keeps washing away, and also resilience infrastructure such as excessive fuel load or construction of a weir on the Bemboka river so water doesn't need to be brought from Candelo or Yellow Pinch when there is a fire.

With the transformation of council's operation the cost of maintaining infrastructure would also be reduced, couple this with accountability on projects and we will see the money spread a lot further in maintaining the assets of the community, additionally community groups could be empowered to play a more active role in grants, construction and maintenance of local assets.

JOY ROBIN

Joy Robin

Joy Robin

Heritage and Timber Bridges

Our heritage and history are very important to us all, its our interesting stories as we journey through life. Most of us relish the idea of conversing about our past family, employment, homes, adventures etc. Every piece of heritage or historical sites, buildings, bridges, etc. should be investigated on its merit.

Community consultation and transparency is of the utmost importance in reaching decisions on these matters. We must always respect the opinion and views of others, they can vary from personal, economic, aesthetically culturally spiritually and many other reasons. All these different reasons can be very important to individuals, communities, businesses, industries etc. these factors need to be considered. Sometimes things that aren't important to one, can be very important to others.

We have lost so many of our historical sites in recent years, however one great news story is the Hotel Australasia in Eden. I was privileged to be in the company of several young people recently when one asked "why don't we build buildings like that now". It really is quite euphoric to see the building standing there in all its historical glory. Thanks Biggs for your vision.

Finances

This is a very specialised field, I would have advice when perusing the budget etc as I believe we need to be aware of all facets of the budget and spending in particular. Perhaps an independent audit, it would be a matter of analysing all the finances at the time and making an informed decision.

I would like to know what the criteria and cost benefit analysis are pertaining to BVSC-supported infrastructure throughout the shire.

Public Infrastructure

Building cost for new and maintaining infrastructure is a big concern to us all, I believe BVSC has to look very closely at supporting new infrastructure at this time. Very importantly BVSC need to look very closely at the benefits for all the community, when supporting new infrastructure. The things I would always support would be for our youth, homelessness and aged care, education and employment.

MICHAEL BRITTEN

Michael Britten

Michael Britten

Heritage and Timber Bridges

I am aware of the public concern about the Cuttagee Bridge. I support the historical preservation of assets, as I did with the Australasia Hotel in Eden which will now be a landmark for the port. With bridges I am aware that often grants dictate what can be achieved and multiple concrete bridge replacement is structurally and financially a good result. When it comes to preserving the cultural attraction of an area such as the Bermagui area I believe we need to think outside the box to achieve a long term benefit and not just one of necessity.

I listened to the debate in council and the suggestion of a hybrid result using the structural integrity of concrete and also providing an aesthetic result by the exterior use of timbers to retain a heritage preservation. This should be fully investigated.

Finances

This is a vexed question. I believe the current council failed to continue the asset maintenance regime set down from 2009-2016, moved away from borrowing to fund reinstatement as was intended as part of the SRV created in 2014-16, failed to adopt a long-term financial plan in 2016, and embarked on asset maintenance dependent on own income and grants.

It became very clear at the end of 2019 with the aborted attempt for a pools SRV that council was heading for a deficit and after 30/6/2020, I with others put the council and the public on notice as to the growing deficit and council carried out a baseline audit. As a result, council commenced budget repair but much has been put over to the next council including the repayment of $8m of restricted funds and a new rating structure to allow rates to increase.

Existing grants will need to be prioritised and re-costed to ascertain shortfall before the grant is expended to see what further deficit exists. The ability to borrow exists but to do so you first have to establish how you have committed existing cashflow to ascertain what surplus funds are available to meet debt. It was call being "Fit for the Future" in 2016 and this has to be re-established.

Public Infrastructure

This is interrelated with the previous question. For example the Bega pool was listed for upgrade in 2022/23 under the recreational asset maintenance plan funded by the 2016 rate increase. If this is not to occur it needs to be examined and explained publicly. Council from 2009 onwards established several AMPs to cover all assets and the long term financial plan address funding by debt where needed. Many councils are in trouble and IPART last week released a discussion paper outlining the need to determine base line requirements for all essential infrastructure in a community and to give the funding priority as opposed to new non-essential assets that will create new unfunded maintenance.

We are not a financially wealthy shire and need to curtail new expenditure that limits out ability to maintain existing essential services. The last council has not followed that philosophy, but under IPART's edict the next council will need to.

If debt financing is not affordable and grants do not include maintenance as well as capital then the choice is to gain public approval to increase rates to establish new funding. IPART will look closely at any applications to increase rates where its regulatory directions have not been followed.

My whole concern is the future affordability of increased demands that will be placed on a low socioeconomic shire such as ours.

JOSHUA SHOOBRIDGE

Joshua Shoobridge

Joshua Shoobridge

Heritage and Timber Bridges

We are blessed in the amount of beautiful and historic structures we have in our shire. We are also lucky to have a community who cares so deeply for these assets. Proper community consultation is essential in making sure we maintain these structures. Not just listening to the community but also making sure we as a council communicate the fine print effectively to the community. I will work with the community to ensure that appropriate maintenance and safety measures are mixed with keeping the historical architecture of our heritage assets.

Finances

As residents in the Bega Valley we have seen and heard numerous things in regards to the state of council finances. Unfortunately a lot of the information we have been given can be difficult to navigate. As a councillor I will work towards not only building financial stability through responsible decision making, but also having accountability at the forefront of all projects. We need to the job right the first time. To create more transparency I will table a motion that will start the process of getting an easy to read copy of the budget and financial outcomes attached to rates notices sent out to all landowners and ratepayers. To me SRVs are a last resort, we need to work toward other initiatives that either make current services more efficient which in turn makes them cheaper. We also should be making investments into projects that will see a positive return. In the coming next two years the council will have a lot of work to do when it comes to our finances, we need to be focused in continuing to build a strong foundation to move forward

Public Infrastructure

During the past two years we have all relied on our outdoor recreation to help maintain our sanity. So to me personally I have gotten so much out of the outdoor recreational infrastructure provided by council and the many number of community groups who work on it. Being outside and moving gives us so many benefits to our physical and mental health. I am a member of the Kalaru Evans Park Committee and very aware of the work community members do to create these wonderful assets for our shire. We have also seen the large amount of work done by the Sapphire Coast Skate Park Association in getting a new park built in Merimbula - These groups need council assistance. As a disability support worker, access to these facilities (well all facilities) is one of the most important priorities. We can't continue to forget our disabled brothers and sisters and exclude them from accessing these facilities. We need to be aware of the budget required to maintain these assets affectively, it is no good in having these projects completed if we can't maintain them.

This story Meet the candidates: Bega Valley council hopefuls answer your questions first appeared on Bega District News.