City of Greater Geelong councillors have moved swiftly to avoid discussing a controversial proposal to change the council's Special Charge scheme without public consultation.
At a council meeting on December 14, councillors were due to discuss an officers' report recommending that landowners in the Central Road area of Clifton Springs should be allowed to defer paying a 'special charge' for a new drain ... but at a cost of 5% p.a. interest. (See 'Giving with one hand, but taking away with the other' on this blog [14 December 2010].)
At that meeting, exchanges during 'Question Time' revealed three things about the officers' recommendation:
1. CoGG has entered a legal agreement without having budgeted for the cost
CoGG has entered a legal agreement with Pinnacle Living (the company that wants to build a retirement village in Central Road and needs a new drain to do so) to pay 75% share of the $1.5m cost of the drain. It hasn’t budgeted for this expense, so it intends to pay for it with a loan. It then intends to get landowners to pay off that loan plus 5% p.a. compound interest. (This would mean that a household currently facing a ‘special charge’ of $78,p000 will, after ten years, face a bill for $127,000.)
2. CoGG has changed the legal basis of its proposed ‘special charge’ for Central Road
CoGG is asserting that despite Section 163B (6.1) of the Local Government Act preventing it from proceeding with the ‘special charge’ because a majority of landowners in Central Road have objected to it, it can still proceed because Section 163B (6.2) of the Act enables it do so if a drain is required to safeguard public health. In all the reports, etc. concerning this proposal, public health has never been mentioned as a reason for proposing it; and the recommendations in the officers’ report to last night’s meeting include the following: ‘Construction of the main drain is required for the orderly, proper and safe development of the Central Road properties within the drainage catchment.’ (Recommendation B[d], p25). Where was the concern with public health when those recommendations were written?
'Public health' emerged as the rationale for the scheme soon after local landowners claimed that the scheme couldn't proceed in the face of majority opposition - as set out in Section 163B (6.1) of the Local Government Act.
3. CoGG is considering changing its 'special charges' policy without consulting the public
The proposal to institute the ‘deferred payment’ (at 5% p.a.) around the Central Road ‘special charge’ scheme sets a precedent for the operation of the ‘special charge’ scheme across the whole Council. Nonetheless, the report recommends that the council should introduce this change, despite the fact that it hasn’t been published for public scrutiny and comment. Officers stated that this was permissable because the proposal was a 'variation' to an existing policy, not a new policy.
When council reached the Central Road item on the agenda, Cllr. Andy Richards – who was formally proposing it – immediately proposed that the matter be deferred until the next council meeting (25 January 2011). Cllr. Rod Macdonald seconded the proposal. There was immediate agreement and council moved swiftly to the next item. To an outside observer, it appeared as though councillors and officers had decided – in their ‘pre-meeting meeting’ - that this item needed to be looked at again.
A final note on council procedure. An internal council Submissions Panel met earlier this year to consider objections to the Central Road ‘special charges’. The chair of that Panel, Cllr. Jan Farrell, told everyone there that objectors would receive notice of when the council would consider the Panel’s report. Landowners in Central Road have received no such notice. So if they hadn’t noticed the item on the agenda when it was published on the Friday preceeding the council meeting, they would have had no chance to question the legality of the proposal as they did last night.