The six swimming pools dotted around the inland villages of the Bega Valley are well-loved, but for that same community, the idea of paying extra to maintain and upgrade them has gone down like a Band-Aid floating in the shallow end.
Despite the local reaction to an increase in rates, Bega Valley Shire Councillors have voted seven to two to notify the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) of its intention to apply for a Special Rate Variation (SRV).
Leading up to this week’s meeting, Council conducted a number of information and engagement exercises to test the idea – including an online survey completed by 659 people. Despite 56% of respondents supporting the retention of Eden, Pambula, Candelo, Bega, Bemboka, and Cobargo pools, 53% said they were unwilling to pay more in their rates to upgrade and keep the six pools.
Wednesday’s meeting was described as “D-day, decision day” by Cr Tony Allen, who led the discussion in the chamber, moving a motion that would see the introduction of the 11% increase staggered over three years.
If approved by IPART, the SRV would see an increase in rates, above the rate peg, which would occur in equal increments starting in 2020-21, the full variation would only come into effect in the third year but remain for perpetuity.
“At the end of the day, we have to make decisions about assets this community owns, we need to stand tall and make the call, ” Cr Allen says.
For those who have campaigned against the hike, which will raise just over $2 million a year, Cr Allen says, “name the pool you’ll close first.”
Mitchell Nadin and Jo Dodds were the only two Councillors to speak against the rate rise, both keen to see other funding options explored.
Cr Nadin tried to defer the decision so that monies from the proposed sale of Southern Phone could be considered, along with other ideas.
“Now is not the right time [for a rate rise],” Cr Nadin says pointing to a slowing economy, drought and household budget pressures.
Cr Nadin describes pools as “a huge luxury item” pointing to other council responsibilities more deserving of an SRV.
“Pools are a thirsty resource,” Cr Dodds quips, “I am not comfortable with an SRV for one asset class, what else could we do with that money?”
“I’ll be accused of trying to close pools, or of trying to campaign for easy votes by opposing an SRV, but it’s never as simple as that. It’s never black or white.
“We are over-endowed with swimming pools per head of population.”
Their colleagues dismissed the arguments, confident that the last three years of consideration have informed a tough but in the end correct outcome.
“If we don’t do this we are effectively saying – close these pools,” Cr Russell Fitzpatrick says.
Eden’s Cr Sharon Tapscott says, “if you can keep them [pools] modern and up to date you will increase traffic.”
Cr Robyn Bain adds,”swimming is an essential component of our lives. We’ve looked at this inside out, back to front and upside down – there is no other way. We have done our due diligence.”
Mayor Kristy McBain says Council has done much to drive operational efficiency gains and contain services and suggests that Local Government needs to be better funded, “we account for just 3.7% of total taxation in Australia.”
“There are no current grants where the Bega Pool meets the criteria.
“The SRV will release money back into the general fund,” Cr McBain says adding that the NSW Forestry Corporation and National Parks and Wildlife Service should be paying rates.
“A community that has halls, libraries, galleries and pools are connected communities, that’s the community I want to be apart of.”
Cr McBain suggests that posturing ahead of next September’s Local Government election has skewed the discussion for political advantage.
The full outline of the rate increase will be presented to the Council meeting of December 11 in the draft operational plan for the 2020/21 year. This will be placed on public exhibition for an extended period until January 24.
The draft operational plan will include modelling for SRV expenditure over the first 10 years in which time Bega and Cobargo pools will be due for redevelopment.
The draft plan will also point to how money currently spent on pools from the general fund could be spent elsewhere in Council if the SRV is approved by IPART.
Council says the average increase on individual ratepayers will be $2.82 per household per week based on a land value of $204,000, that’s a rate increase of $146.82 per year.
“People will come back to us in years to come and say – thank goodness you had the guts,” Cr Allen says.