Bendigo council CEO says streamlining services managed by local government could help some municipalities survive rate-capping

City of Greater Bendigo CEO Craig Niemann (right) and councillor Rod Fyffe made submissions to a state government inquiry into the sustainability of regional councils, which sat in Bendigo on Wednesday.
City of Greater Bendigo CEO Craig Niemann (right) and councillor Rod Fyffe made submissions to a state government inquiry into the sustainability of regional councils, which sat in Bendigo on Wednesday.

Streamlining services provided by local government could help some municipalities survive in a rate-capping environment, Bendigo council’s chief executive told a state government inquiry.

School crossings, community health services and elements of statutory planning could be aligned to relevant state and federal departments to ease the financial strain on councils, according to City of Greater Bendigo CEO Craig Niemann.

The management of parks on Crown land was another area local government invariably picked up the tab, he said.

The council chief used Malone Park in Marong as an example to the Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee, which sat in Bendigo on Wednesday.

Related:Rate cap impacts democracy – council

“The community committee said ‘they can’t do this anymore’ so council picks it up, spends $200,000 to get it up to standard and it costs us to maintain,” he said, suggesting now-defunct state government programs used to fund similar projects.

“Every time we try and take something off the community we get the same response. If we close a pool, if we close a hall, or look at home community care services  – it’s really difficult because the community want the service,” he said.

“In a lot of ways local government is best placed to deliver these services but it’s about where it is funded from.”

Mr Niemann said the state and local government funding ratio had changed dramatically during his time with council, once being 50:50, now being closer to 20:80. 

“Councils are elected to develop plans on behalf of their communities and they’re restricted on how they can deliver that plan through finance,” he said, adding rate capping had taken away council’s “decision making” ability.

Related: Rate cap pressure

The state government introduced an indefinite rate cap in December 2015, which it said was in response to uncontrollable rate rises from local governments. 

A 2.5 per cent cap was in place in 2016-17, while local government minister Natalie Hutchins announced a 2 per cent cap for the 2017-18 financial year in December.

“No one enjoys it (rates) but I don’t think people understand the value they get from it,” Mr Niemann said. 

Rate capping would affect council’s provision of sporting facilities going forward, he said.  

“More people are playing soccer, hockey, basketball, but it also means we have to change the way we fund and manage facilities,” he said.

The Epsom-Huntly Recreation Reserve development cost $15 million, $1 million of which was supported through state government grants, he said.