Lismore budget blow-out
LISMORE councillors have voted through their biggest deficit budget since the council’s amalgamation in 1976, despite heavy spending cuts.
The councillors whittled the deficit from a starting point of $296,000 down to $51,800, although at one point they pushed it past $400,000.
In the process they scrapped a $200,000 sealing program for Sheehan Road near Coraki, dropped new money for sporting field grants, cut $90,000 in 50/50 council/state funding for bike paths, and rejected pleas for it to fix an asbestos problem at the Lismore City Hall and a drowning hazard at the Lismore Preschool.
Finance manager Rino Santin said most of the deficit had come from higher legal costs – largely as a result of court action over Champions Quarry. However, a small part of it was simply because the council lacked the income to do all the things the community expected of it.
Mr Santin said the budget position agreed to on Wednesday was a worst-case scenario and it could easily end up going back into surplus.
Mayor Jenny Dowell told the councillors there was no easy way out of the predicament.
“It’s not about being popular, it’s about making hard decisions,” she told councillors early in the meeting as they pushed the deficit up.
The councillors took Cr Dowell’s advice, and yesterday the flak started flying as news of the cuts filtered into the community.
NORPA general manager Delia O’Hara had addressed Wednesday night’s budget meeting, pleading for the council to spend $43,000 removing asbestos dust from the Lismore City Hall ceiling, which was putting NORPA staff at risk.
Ms O’Hara described the ceiling cavity as ‘an essential workplace’, with NORPA staff frequently having to go up there to access lights. At present staff had to wear space suit-style asbestos contamination suits, which then had to be carefully disposed of afterwards.
Infrastructure services executive director Garry Hemsworth told the council it could get away with not fixing the asbestos problem if NORPA staff followed ‘tight procedures’ when accessing the ceiling.
Air-conditioning contractors were refusing to go into the ceiling because of the problem, but council staff could take over that work.
He suggested management of the asbestos issue should be ‘negotiated’ into the new management agreement for the City Hall, which was coming due.
However, Ms O’Hara said NORPA lacked the expertise to fix the problem – even if it were inclined to do so.
Another group to miss out was the Lismore Preschool which had been suffering flooding problems ever since the council built a new footpath next to the complex.
Preschool director Alexis Hughes told the meeting the preschool had been forced to move its sandpit because it kept filling with water after heavy rain. The new preschool now also had to move the sandpit’s shade structure and, more importantly, fill in the old sandpit area, which was still filling with water and now creating a drowning hazard for children there.
Ms Hughes was unable to put a figure on that work, but said she was told moving the shade structure would cost about $5000.
Speaking yesterday, Cr David Yarnell said he was unhappy a rural road project and funding for rural sporting groups had been lost from the budget.
It was time for councillors to stop trimming the fringes of the $111 million budget and take a new look at it, from the ground up, even if that process could mean cutting staff to save money in the budget, he said.
“We should start with nought and work out what are the essential services and work we do and what the limit of the money is,” he said.
“Each year everything that has gone before keeps going and we just fiddle with the stuff around the edges.”
Cr Dowell said that was an option, but said a detailed review of the budget done last year had essentially already gone through that process.
The ‘stuff around the edges’ was what was left after the things the council was required to do under State legislation.