Northern Rivers councils' staff budgets dwarf road funds
A COUNCIL'S most visible services may be its roads, parks and waste management - but the Northern Rivers councils regularly spend more on staff than those three categories combined.
But councils have defended their spending habits, stating they would not be able to provide the same level of service without these staff levels.
In the 2015-16 budget, Ballina Shire Council budgeted $20.95 million on staffing costs and $17.92 million on waste, roads and parks combined.
Similarly Lismore City Council budgeted $34.4 million on staff in 2015-16 and $25.5 million on waste, roads and parks.
Ballina council CEO Paul Hickey said staff levels were vital to providing demanded services and maintaining the council's important role in the economy.
"We employ approximately 300 staff, and are most likely the largest employer in the Ballina Shire," he said.
"We have always had a relatively tight monitoring of staff costs by constantly reviewing service levels and when vacancies occur, some positions have not been replaced, or placed on hold. Also as our population grows we are continually looking for operating efficiencies to minimise the need to increase staff levels."
Similarly Richmond Valley CEO John Walker said staffing was one of the council's most important expenses.
"We are a service organisation. People are needed to deliver services. Much of our work revolves around construction and maintenance which is labour intensive," he said.
He said the council was the second largest employer in the Richmond Valley but worked hard to minimise staffing costs.
"We build into our budget an efficiency dividend each year, we manage leave entitlements strictly, we conduct ongoing service level reviews, we strictly manage overtime, we review every replacement carefully, we employ more younger people," he said.
A Lismore City Council spokesman said the money spent on staffing was less than most regional councils in NSW, which had a median rate of 33%.
"Council employs around 440 direct staff as well as many other contract staff, and our tender process has a 20% local content component, ensuring more jobs stay local," he said.
"The employment we provide is significant and we are an important employer in the region along with health and education."
The council regularly contracts works and services to external providers and uses casual labour to bring down staffing costs.
"(Another) initiative that has been applied for some time is the 'staff moratorium'," the spokesman said.
"When a permanent position is vacated, it is not filled for a period of up to four months.
"This allows management to assess the ongoing need of a position and if outcomes can be delivered by other means."
Another cost-saving measure was a program where council "partnered" with other providers to deliver services to the community.
"Historically, such demands may have been responded to by council simply delivering them at the full cost to ratepayers or not at all," the spokesman said.
"This initiative is helping us to spread the cost of service provision."
There are no council-wide enterprise bargaining agreements, but council is currently negotiating an EBA for the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre and Lismore Memorial Baths.
"Council uses the local government state award," the spokesman said.
"Award negotiations are conducted between representatives of all participating councils through Local Government NSW and the three relevant unions.
"The current award is in place until July 2017.
"The award negotiations usually include an annual pay indexation component.
"This was 2.6% in 2014, 2.7% in 2015 and will be 2.8% on July 1, 2016."
Byron Shire Council general manager Ken Gainger said the council had restructured costs over the past two years.
"We have recently achieved over $1 million in annualised savings from the revised organisation structure.
These savings have been primarily redirected to enhance resource capacity in other areas such as asset management and infrastructure improvement," he said.
"The effective redirection of council staff resources ensures that our services and programs continue to meet community needs and expectations without impacting on ratepayers."
- APN NEWSDESK