May 5 - 11, 2024: Issue 624

From the Council Chamber: April 30 2024

By Councillor Miranda Korzy

Some of the residents of Pittwater who attended this month's Council Meeting in support of a demerger poll

I hope this bumper budget report from the council chamber will spur residents on to “Have Their Say”, which is now open for public exhibition. I’m sure this week’s council meeting provided some interesting revelations to residents with details from the budget papers showing a deficit for the next financial year and a funding gap into the future. Another issue - my motion for a demerger poll - also generated plenty of debate, along with another to develop protocols for working with Aboriginal people in our community. The council also decided the future of the former Avalon council service centre. Despite another marathon meeting ending at 11.30pm, another 10 items remained and the assembly was adjourned until 6pm on May 14.

Councillors fail to support demerger poll 

Northern Beaches Councillors showed little confidence in the level of public support for their organisation, voting at Tuesday’s meeting to amend my demerger poll motion, replacing the poll with a council “Have Your Say”.   

My motion, if carried, would have given residents across the Northern Beaches the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted to remain part of the mega council or return to the former Pittwater, Warringah and Manly councils.

The poll would have been carried out at the September 14 council election, the cheapest way of doing so before the 10 year cut off set by the Local Government Act

It also called for a desktop business analysis and a report into the LGA’s geographic cohesion, communities of interest, as well as democratic representation by June 25.

I emphasised at the meeting that: “The crux of the issue was to provide the community with the vote denied to us when we were amalgamated in 2016.”

“It is something that is fundamental to democracy,” I said later in a statement later.

“Here we have an example of a council not prepared to recognise this fact and instead voting for a grab bag of consolation prizes.  

“As one resident said later, ‘Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’.”

However, new Liberal Councillor Michael Gencher, who earlier this year defected from Your Northern Beaches, amended the motion to remove the poll, replacing it with a set of steps that do not lead to a vote.

Mr Gencher began his motion, “noting the very late tabling of this business at the April ordinary meeting without prior consultation, and the significant financial implications of conducting a poll”.

In fact, I submitted the motion on time and on April 23, a week before the meeting, sent a copy of it to all councillors, with a message saying that I was happy to discuss it and to answer any questions about it. 

He told the meeting that he thought there wasn’t enough support for the motion to pass unamended. Later, on my Facebook page he wrote:

“The Notice of Motion received no support and was destined to fail that evening—that's it, the idea of demerger was essentially over,” Mr Gencher said. 

“However, the amendment CLEARLY outlined in point 4 presents the only possible scenario where a poll remains feasible, but only if the councillors are convinced - and points 1 -3 give the structure to do that. 

“The amendment provides clear steps on how to support and present case (sic) for a poll on demerger, offering a new opportunity to prepare a case, within the SAME TIME FRAME that wasn't available before.”

I note here that the idea of a demerger is far from over, despite my motion failing when Mr Gencher intervened. And I do not believe it is relevant whether councillors are convinced or not that there is a case for a demerger. What is important is that residents get a vote.  

Secondly, the overall time frame has not changed and the original motion gave staff two months rather than Mr Genchers' one in which to prepare a report.

Protect Pittwater Association president Simon Dunn spoke at the Public Address session before the meeting, describing some of the problems with the amalgamation, including financial, the size of the workload for councillors, and difficulty of being aware of and understanding issues across the 25,000 hectares of the LGA.

“After 8 years of an amalgamated council, I think it is fair to say that the honeymoon is well and truly over and the myth that achieving ‘scale and capacity’ will solve the real problems facing NSW Councils is well and truly busted,” he said.

However, he noted that councillors were not being called on to vote on a demerger but rather a poll.

Also speaking from Protect Pittwater was secretary Anna Maria Monticelli, who called for a return of democracy.

“We all know, Pittwater residents never wanted to be amalgamated into a mega NBC,” Ms Monticelli told the meeting. 

“The merger was forced upon them and we were never given a democratic choice.

“In fact, the process was done without our consent and with various deals behind the scenes.

“The present situation to me is overwhelmingly obvious: Pittwater residents want their democratic rights to be restored and their destiny to be returned to the people.”

During debate, Manly Independent Candy Bingham asked staff how much debt Pittwater and Manly Councils brought to the amalgamated council.

Staff responded that Pittwater’s debt was $24 million and Manly’s was $66 million - although $30 million of that was unspent and paid off straight away. However, Pittwater’s debt was taken out at a time of low interest rates, well structured with repayments over time, and the council had no trouble meeting those repayments. 

Yet Ms Bingham said although she appreciated that the Pittwater community was concerned about the issue, there was no similar movement in Manly. Given the level of Manly and Pittwater Council’s debts, we couldn’t afford a demerger, she told the meeting.

Other councillors said Pittwater residents should have a poll but voted for Mr Gencher’s amendment nevertheless. Curl Curl Liberal David Walton said he supported the amendment because it would achieve what Protect Pittwater President Mr Dunn and I had requested.

Pittwater Liberal Councillor, Karina Page, also told the meeting she would support Mr Gencher’s amendment. 

“I had heard some of the early debates about the potential cost of this,” Ms Page said.

“But … This is about giving residents the right to vote.”

Meanwhile, Narrabeen Independent Councillor, Vince De Luca, said amalgamations had not worked and he supported the motion. However, he said: “It is apparent that this motion does not have the support of the chamber,“ and also voted for the amendment.

Frenchs Forest Your Northern Beaches Councillor Jose Menano Peres spoke against the original motion, saying he thought it was important to know what had happened financially since the amalgamation “but we have already spent a fair bit of time doing that”, he said.

He also voted against the amended motion, questioning the validity of any information the council would receive from the business analysis, given the complexity of the issues related to the council merger. 

Those who voted for the motion: Ms Bingham, Mr Gencher, Ms Page, Manly Liberal Councillor Georgia Ryburn, Mr De Luca, Mr Sprott, Narrabeen Liberal Councillor Bianca Crvelin, Narrabeen Councillor Ruth Robins and Mr Walton.

Those Against: Curl Curl Greens Councillor Kristyn Glanville, Manly Liberal Councillor Sarah Grattan, Mayor and Curl Curl YNB Councillor Sue Heins, Mr Menano-Pires, Wakehurst MP and Frenchs Forest Councillor Michael Regan, and me.

Those who voted for the final motion were: Ms Glanville, Ms Bingham, Mr Gencher, Mr Page, Mr Ryburn, Mr De Luca, Mr Sprott, Mr Crvelin, Ms Robins and Mr Walton.

Those against: Ms Grattan, Ms Korzy, Mr Heins, Mr Menano-Pires and Mr Regan.

One consequence of the vote is that it showed the NSW Labor government’s Bill for changes to de-amalgamation pathways is unworkable.

Labor when in Opposition amended the Local Government Act (Section 218CC) to create a council led pathway for communities that could demonstrate a majority wished to de-amalgamate from their forcibly merged council. 

The amendment “218CC Proposals for de-amalgamations” specified (6) that the government would pay for the de-amalgamation.

“(6) The Minister is, by making grants under section 620 or using money otherwise appropriated by Parliament for the purpose, to ensure that the cost of any de-amalgamation of the new area resulting from a business case submitted under this section is fully funded,” the amendment said.

Labor also promised at the previous two state elections that it would introduce amendments to the Local Government Act to give small communities a say, via a referendum.

Now, in the Bill expected to go through the NSW Parliament this week, only amalgamated councils, rather than communities in the former council areas, are allowed to petition for a referendum.

So the problem with Labor’s demerger proposals is that they require amalgamated councils to vote for a poll that threatens their own demise.

What the budget papers say - it’s not rosy

The Northern Beaches Council budget doesn’t paint a rosy picture for the next financial year, forecasting, in draft papers, that it will fall into deficit. The papers went on public exhibition following a vote at Tuesday’s council meeting. 

Pittwater residents (many now in Warriewood Ward), will celebrate the news that the council is proposing to set aside $10.45 million to rebuild the Warriewood Community Centre. Whilst the draft plan proposes borrowing that $10.45 million to fund it, we should remember that Pittwater Council collected $5.8 million in Developer Contributions for this project. Unfortunately since then, with inflation and spiralling building costs, this amount has depreciated in value. 

However, the loan will also allow the council to direct funding towards the new $30 million computer business operating system, the Enterprise Resource Management System (ERP). This will cost the council $11,895,000 next financial year - after spending $646,000 on it this year. I believe the failure to address the need for this system earlier - with the current one due to be switched off this year - is also undermining our budget position. 

The budget papers also confirm the council will persevere with borrowing $4.6 million from the internally restricted Mona Vale Cemetery Fund to help offset the cost of the system. I opposed this measure last year and still do so. Protect Pittwater president Simon Dunn has described this as “borrowing from the dead”. 

More generally, the papers forecast an Operating Deficit of $5.8 million with proposed expenditure of $526 million. That includes a capital works program of $101 million. A further $2.1 million will be paid down on existing loans. 

Rate rises of 4.9 per cent are approved under the IPART rate peg, which from this year is calculated on forward looking measures. This contrasts with the previous method of tying them to previous costs which, with rising interest rates in recent years, has resulted in council income failing to keep pace with inflation. 

NBC rates for 2024/25 are therefore forecast to raise $197 million. The average increase will be $79 for the year, for a total average rate of $1,700 - with a quarterly increase of $20 for an instalment of $425.

The Domestic Waste Charge will increase $31 to $586, raising $57 million. This includes $9 per household towards the council’s new Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP) - council’s computer business management system.

However, the draft Long term Financial Plan also includes some sobering news - alluded to in last year’s budget papers. This plan notes council’s $3.45 billion worth of council assets. However, as of June 2023, we had a gap valued at $255 million over 10 years in funds for maintaining and building new assets, as well as increasing service levels. 

Staff advise in the draft papers that to meet this gap, the council needs an extra $15.1 million each year for maintaining and building new infrastructure plus $10.4 million for improving services. 

The papers note that inflation has increased cumulatively by 16.8 per cent over three years - or more than double the 7.2 per cent increase in rates over the same period. This has resulted in a cumulative loss of $18 million in rates income, the papers say. 

The Covid pandemic, in which the council lost significant amounts in fees and reprioritised spending to help those who were struggling, also had an impact on income, along with six natural disasters (storms with flooding and landslides).

With this financial scenario developing, it appears that for some time council has been unable to carry out adequate maintenance on existing assets, leading to a backlog that we can no longer ignore. 

For this budget, staff have proposed two courses of action (my highlights). Under Scenario 1, staff write that:

Income levels are not sufficient to fund operating expenses, invest in the ongoing renewal of infrastructure assets and provide the necessary working capital to manage unexpected events. Performance benchmarks are weakening or not met, especially regarding asset management and operating performance. 

This scenario is not sustainable and without the intervention explored in Scenario 2 will continue to reduce services to the community.” 

To address the funding gap of $15.1 million, staff propose Scenario 2:

“In this model infrastructure expenditure is increased and working capital is strengthened to provide the capacity to respond to unexpected events. This produces a stronger operating result and asset management ratios.

To provide funding for this model, rates income increases $20 million from the 2025/26 financial year (which is retained in future years).” 

However, this model still fails to provide funding for the $10.4 per annum funding gap for new assets and service improvements. Neither does it increase income to finance a wish list of projects and programs that residents have asked for, including more compliance officers and rangers. 

This problem is common to councils across the state, both amalgamated and stand alone. However, I believe the merger of Pittwater Council into NBC has contributed by creating a council so huge that it requires a large layer of middle management to communicate across and within its divisions. Newcastle University Economics Professor and local government expert Joseph Drew outlines the situation in his work.

In my speech to council I said I would vote for exhibition of the budget, to give residents the opportunity to read and make submissions on it. However, I pointed out a number of issues I’m concerned about.

“I believe this budget raises many questions about this councils’ priorities, values and sustainability that will require further interrogation of the papers to establish answers,” I said.

“For Pittwater, issues include the continued plans to withdraw $4.6 million from the Mona Vale Cemetery Fund, an internally restricted fund that I believe should be left for the upkeep of the cemetery as needed.

“It’s still surprising to me that we are having to borrow money to develop a computer system that is core to council’s functions and the need for which was entirely predictable.

“Secondly, I’m disappointed we will have to borrow $10 million to build the Warriewood Community Centre - given Pittwater Council raised developer contributions for it. I hope the community will remember this and note that this loan will release other funds that can be spent on the computer system.

“Despite Covid, increased interest rates, assets that have been allowed to deteriorate beyond depreciation value, and an IPART approved rate increase for 2024/25 of 4.9 per cent, we will still have an Operating Deficit (before capital grants and contributions) of $5.8 million in 2024/25.   

“We also face either a Special Rate Variation, cuts to services or asset sales to start reversing the situation next year.

“Yet the previous state government told us that an amalgamation would lower rates and make us “fit for the future”. I think the best we can say is that the merger did not solve the financial problems of councils around the state.”

On the issue of compliance, I noted councillors will receive a briefing about this in May. 

“It’s an area in which I receive numerous complaints. Lack of rangers is another. Development infringements, encroachments on public land, illegal loss of trees, dogs running loose on every beach in the district - Pittwater residents are angry about the lack of enforcement,” I told the meeting.

“We know private certifiers are part of the problem but compliance officers and rangers have tough jobs, which at a time of labour shortages might explain our vacant positions. So I believe we also need to consider increasing their pay.

“Yet this budget suggests no increase for these important service areas. In fact, they’re on a wish list that puts them at the bottom of the priority list.”  

I also noted that I’ve asked staff to identify areas where we can find at least the $1.1 million that staff believe would be needed next year to fund the number of rangers and compliance officers needed to enforce council rules.

I was not the only councillor concerned about the budget. A number of councillors asked staff questions about the draft papers, including Pittwater’s Karina Page, who inquired if the Coast Walk was originally fully funded. Staff responded that this was never the case. Money was still available for the section from Newport to Bilgola Bends, but the remainder north was unfunded.

Asked by Ms Page how staff prioritise funding for footpaths, they said they were about to put a new plan in place for assessment of them.

Another Liberal councillor, Mr Walton said “operational expenditure is out of control”. 

He referred to a weekend budget workshop councillors attended in March, where he said he had made suggestions about expenditure that was not related to “core local government business”.

“We talked about those efficiencies, around material costs and employees,” he told the meeting. 

However, he said the council was now intending to increase operating expenses above the rate of inflation and for that reason, could not support the budget.

Similarly, Mr De Luca was also concerned about “efficiencies” and asked about streamlining of business units and whether there were any savings. Staff noted they had reviewed “ways of delivering customer services”, which had resulted in savings of $400,000. 

“We are looking at it on a continuing basis,” CEO Scott Phillips told the meeting, saying he couldn’t go into detail because of confidentiality. 

Mr De Luca also raised the cost quoted for new footpaths at $5.2 million for 5km, to which staff responded that “it’s an estimate”. 

I also asked a series of questions of staff at the meeting, that revealed: 

  • Council has spent $600,000 on Mona Vale cemetery upkeep (mowing, preparing of burial sites and other maintenance (compare that to the more than $2 million borrowed from the fund during the same period).
  • The deficit under Scenario 1 would be $11.4 million and under Scenario 2, $2.6 million.
  • Of $2.2 million going to wharves, $800,000 would be spent on major reconstruction of Taylor’s Point wharf.
  • Design and approvals work is budgeted for Great Mackerel Beach and Currawong, however funding for Currawong would be provided by the Pittwater Environmental Foundation.
  • Protection works for Collaroy-Narrabeen are budgeted for in 2024/25, including rock revetments at Stuart St and Ramsay St; installation of new stairs to improve public access; and undertaking investigations and design work for other public land along the stretch of beach.
  • Contrary to what I had been told previously, the whole $500,000 Streets as Shared Spaces Grant for Avalon was spent in the 2022/23 financial year. (I have been previously told on a number of occasions that money remained from the grant to either improve the area or return it to how it was originally). 
  • Another $1.7 million is proposed in the draft budget for town centre and village upgrades, including the Avalon Place Plan and design and consultation phase “for making the final outcome of the Streets for Shared Spaces trial permanent, and the renewal of (the) plaza area at Thomas Stephens Reserve, Church Point”.   
  • The budget includes funding for 27 rangers, 16 parking officers and nine compliance officers.
  • A number of these positions are vacant, including nine rangers, five parking officers, and four compliance officers. 

Ms Grattan, an economist, acknowledged the concerns of other councillors but said the magnitude of the funding gap would require significant changes to the council’s budgetary trajectory.

To reverse inflationary pressures, cost shifting from the NSW government, Covid impacts and delays to maintenance, council would have to consult with the community.

“Our Community Strategic Plan is our compact with the community,” she told the meeting.

“This budget is delivering what we have been asked to deliver in this plan.”

However, she noted that although councillors wanted to honour promises contained in operational documents, the council would need to make some fundamental changes to budget strategy in the future.

Those voting for putting the draft budget on public exhibition for at least 28 days: Ms Glanville, Ms Grattan, Ms Bingham, Ms Heins, Ms Robins, Mr Menano-Pires and me. 

Those against: Mr Gencher, Ms Page, Ms Ryburn, Mr De Luca, Ms Crvelin, Mr Regan and Mr Walton.

Absent: Mr Sprott

With an equal number of votes, for and against, the Mayor used her casting vote for the motion which was declared carried.

Council calls for report on Aboriginal Advisory Group

In the aftermath of last year’s unsuccessful Voice referendum, the question of how governments and other bodies develop protocols for working with Aboriginal communities has been fraught. I therefore congratulate Mayor Sue Heins for bringing a motion (known as a “Mayoral Minute”) to Tuesday’s meeting calling for a report from staff on setting up an Aboriginal Community Advisory Group for the Northern Beaches.

The group would review a range of issues, including a Reconciliation Action Plan, culturally appropriate protocols for working with Indigenous people, and council projects and activities. 

Ms Heins noted in Background to the minute that 1,400 people identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander live on the Northern Beaches. The council needed to develop ways of engaging with this community in a meaningful way “on a range of culturally appropriate projects and protocols”, she said. At present, council’s engagement with that community was focused on individual issues or projects.

“It’s simply about the cultural significance of our Aboriginal community,” Ms Heins said.

“... I consider the creation of one advisory group means there’s one point of contact.”

The report would also identify any areas of duplication, she said, with advice from the Aboriginal Heritage Office at Freshwater on one hand, and on the other, the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (MLALC) - which under state legislation represents the interests of First Nations people on the Northern Beaches. 

Some areas in particular could benefit from the advisory group, such public art and selecting place names, with the Geographic Names Board encouraging the use of those with Aboriginal heritage.

Ms Grattan, saying that she had attended a suicide conference that day, pointed out the losses Aboriginal people had experienced since white settlement and the impacts on their health. 

“It’s about connection to country,” she told the meeting.

“It’s really important that we have a group of our Indigenous people … to make sure that we consider more of their perspectives.

“It’s really important for the wellbeing of our Aboriginal community that we give them this space to be heard.”

Ms Glanville also supported the motion, saying the quality of council’s decision making could only be improved by the motion. “It’s important we’re engaging diversely,” she said.

I also spoke for the motion, but noted developing an Aboriginal Community Advisory Group would be a challenging undertaking, akin to devising an organisation like the United Nations.

“As councillors, we represent both descendants of the people who lived here when the British first arrived, and others from clans across NSW who have since moved into the area. These residents bring with them different languages, customs and traditions,” I said.

I also noted the role of the largest landholders on the Northern Beaches, the MLALC.

“As a result, there are divergent histories and views within the First Nations population. Some people have grown up knowing their families, language and traditions. Others not so. Some work extensively amongst Aboriginal people and the council, others keep to themselves.

“However, I believe it’s time we pay our respects to First Nations people by routinely offering them the opportunity to discuss their priorities with the council and find a way they feel comfortable with to provide input. We should not expect that each person or group of Aboriginal people will have the same aspirations and approach to issues but we must find a way to respectfully listen to what is being said.”

However, a number of Liberal councillors were opposed to the report and development of an advisory group, with Mr Walton talking to radio 2GB earlier in the day to voice his concerns.

“I also believe that contrary to your view, that it will decrease duplication, it will increase it,” Mr Walton said to Ms Heins, referring to the advisory roles of both the heritage office and MLALC.

He was also concerned that the motion would tie up resources and, given last year’s Voice referendum failure, was inappropriate as well. 

However, the Mayor said:  “This is not the Voice. Social media and commentary have taken this out of context.”

Mr Gencher indicated the motion was unnecessary, saying: “I think we should be reaching out to all the people involved.  

“It could be just a phone call.”

Those voting for the minute: Ms Glanville, Ms Grattan, Ms Bingham, Ms Heins, Mr De Luca, Ms Robins, Mr Regan and me.

Those against: Mr Gencher, Ms Page, Ms Ryburn, Ms Crvelin, Mr Menano-Pires and Mr Walton.

Absent: Mr Sprott 

Youth hub to expand in Avalon Community Centre

The Avalon Youth Hub - under the auspices of the Burdekin Association Inc, will be invited to negotiate for a licence agreement with the council for the former Avalon Customer Contact Centre, following a vote in confidential session at Tuesday’s meeting. 

In confidential session, councillors voted for the CEO Scott Phillips to negotiate for the proposed community licence with Burdekin, including the fee and licence term for up to 5 years.

Those for the motion: Ms Glanville, Ms Grattan, Ms Bingham, me, Mr Gencher, Ms Page, Ms Heins, Ms Ryburn, Mr Menano-Pires, Mr Regan and Mr Walton

Those against: Mr De Luca and Ms Crvelin

Absent: Mr Sprott and Ms Robins.  

Support for responsible dog and cat owners to be investigated

Support to help encourage responsible dog ownership could be on the cards following a successful motion submitted by Ms Glanville at Tuesday’s meeting. Mr Sprott amended this to cover cats as well, a suggestion that was welcomed by councillors except the Mayor and Ms Grattan.

The motion calls for a report to consider: 

  • Current council activities to promote responsible dog and cat ownership.
  • Options for campaigns to educate residents on responsible dog and cat ownership, as well as the cost of these.
  • Incentives that could be offered to residents to encourage them to take their dog to training classes and potential costs.
  • Possible representations to the NSW Government concerning the Companion Animals Act 1998 and its resourcing in this area.

This last point was significant, because it is state legislation that governs the restrictions (or lack thereof) placed on cats and dogs.

Ms Glanville, introducing the motion, said responsible dog ownership was an issue about which councillors regularly received correspondence. During Covid, puppies didn’t receive the same level of socialisation as usual and were now not as well behaved as could be hoped. 

“This is an opportunity to find out what we’re doing and to see if there are opportunities to improve it,” Ms Glanville told the meeting.

Opposing the amendment to include cats in the motion, Ms Heins said she thought “cats need a different way of treatment”.

Mr De Luca asked what fees council charged owners, and staff responded that they are capped under the NSW Companion Animals Act.

“At present we run a number of information sessions and letter box drops about training, costing council about $10,000 per year,” staff said.

Staff were also reviewing ways to expand its training offerings, including an information pack, apps and more face to face instruction.

The review would be included in the council’s operational budget.

Those voting for the motion: Ms Glanville, Ms Bingham, Mr Gencher, Ms Page, Ms Heins, Ms Ryburn, Mr De Luca, Mr Sprott, Ms Crvelin, Ms Robins, Mr Menano-Pires, Mr Regan, Mr Walton and me.

Those against: Ms Grattan.

Funding for Currawong will be provided by the Pittwater Environmental Foundation