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Moira CEO defends budget figures

Following recent public submissions on the Moira Shire Council’s 2014/15 budget, the Courier sat down with council’s top employee, chief executive Mark Henderson.

ROB HENSON June 19, 2014 3:45am

Following recent public submissions on the Moira Shire Council’s 2014/15 budget, the Courier sat down with council’s top employee, chief executive Mark Henderson. Council will make a decision on the budget at its June 23 meeting at the Cobram Civic Centre at 6pm.

Moira Shire Council chief executive Mark Henderson said the issues of the budget and the probity audit were getting ‘‘crossed over’’.

‘‘We’ve got a lot of people that want to pursue this idea of a probity audit, without an idea of knowing what the objective is, and overlapping that with the budget submission process which is a quite different matter,’’ Mr Henderson said.

‘‘And when you listen to the content to the budget submissions there’s not a lot of knowledge there and understanding of local government finance and budgeting.

‘‘Sure, there were some valid questions, like what does ‘other’ mean — insurance, advertising, community grants — that’s the sort of stuff that sits under ‘other’.

‘‘Somebody said why does page 33 not agree with page 35, well page 33 was about cash flow, page 35 was about operating statement, they’re two different things, two different measures.’’

Mr Henderson said the budget submission process ‘‘wasn’t very positive, and wasn’t particularly productive’’.

‘‘It didn’t deliver a lot in terms of knowledge and understanding, so we’ve got to find a different way to do that,’’ he said.

‘‘I’ve worked with lots of experienced accountants over the years and they don’t understand local government.

‘‘It is different to the private sector and unless you understand it and how rates work and how valuations work, it’s difficult to wrap your head around it.’’

But he said increasingly households and businesses were interested in council budgets, as cost of living increased.

‘‘It doesn’t matter if it’s your phone electricity water council car rego, insurance, as those costs keep building, people are more and more taking up the opportunity to lodge a submission,’’ he said.

‘‘If you look at the lowest rating council in the state and the highest, we’re (Moira) in the middle.

‘‘We’re by no means up as high as many many councils are, and all the low ones are the ones with well-established urban communities, (that are) pretty wealthy, and the unit cost is low.

‘‘Whereas in a rural setting, you’ve got huge distances, huge road networks.’’

He said there was a ‘‘very distinct lack of understanding’’ of how municipal rates worked.

It comes as the Victorian Opposition have raised the idea of capping rates, as NSW does.

‘‘All that will mean, as it has in NSW, is that roads and infrastructure like buildings won’t get maintained to the standard they have in the past,’’ Mr Henderson said.

‘‘You reduce revenue and you’ve got to cut costs.

‘‘One of the chaps (submitters) said ‘cut staffing costs’.

‘‘You look at our staffing complement for Moira’s population of about 30000 (ratepayers) and we would have one of the lowest staffing complements of any council in Victoria, for that size council.

‘‘I think Moira would be one of the leanest councils in Victoria, that’s without question.’’

The former Mildura chief executive said he was comfortable working under pressure, working with other councils that underwent ‘‘turmoil’’.

‘‘But when you come into a new job and you don’t know anyone and you don’t necessarily know who to trust, you’ve got to be a little bit careful for a while,’’ he said.

‘‘I think people who work in local government do so for a couple of reasons: they enjoy working for the public; and they have a sense of community and wanting to do the right thing.

‘‘I come from a position of trust, until I know otherwise.’’

Four weeks into the job, he said ‘‘I know there’s a challenge, but I think we can rise to it.

‘‘Because I don’t really think any of the issues are unrecoverable; there’s no bridges falling over, no catastrophic events we can’t control.

‘‘We’ve got some personality issues, some people that don’t get on, and we’re coming out of a situation where the organisation’s been battered and bruised, and I need to heal it.’’

Mr Henderson said, overall, he ‘‘didn’t really find anything much in the submissions that really questioned the credibility of the budget.’’

‘‘I understand why people don’t like rate rises, I don’t like my phone bill going up, I understand it completely, but I’ve got to keep the Shire financially viable, and do everything we can to keep costs minimal.’’

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