A test of the new council's vision

AFTER a deep breath, the new Ballarat City Council will kick-start the year with a meeting on January 30.

One item that will not be on the agenda will be rates - budget documents won't be publicly available until at least May - yet there are some community members asking questions about the new council's approach to finances.

Under the previous council, rates policy was clear - there was a cap of 4 per cent per annum.

Despite various promises during the election campaign to keep rates low, the new councillors haven't had time to work towards giving the same united guarantee to its constituents for the next four years.

But that time will come around quickly. And the policy of a rates cap shouldn't be considered a fait accompli.

While a cap provides a strong public message about financial responsibility, it won't necessarily stop spending. Despite debt is such a dirty word in times of global financial uncertainty, the proposed $40 million plan to redevelop the Civic Hall site is testament to the ability of councils to borrow or attract funds outside of rates.

A cap does, however, limit investment in services. As the council discovered last year, unforeseen financial hits on the budget bottom line are difficult to cope with under a capped rates structure. Inevitably, services or other major costs to the organisation can suffer.

Having a flexible rate structure would provide greater opportunity for the council to deliver the services the community expects, as well as factor in potential larger scale infrastructure investment or development.

It means roads, rubbish and community services can be maintained while the vision for city growth and development doesn't always mean going solely cap in hand to state and federal governments, or the bank.

Being able to explain, line-by-line, project-by-project, the community benefit of spending is central to a good rating strategy. Financial responsibility can be achieved without a cap.

It would be a great test of the vision of the new council, and also test the faith constituents who undoubtedly voted for change in October, to reconsider this policy.

A CERTAIN bank received considerable press this week after claiming to have identified Australia's most liveable large cities and capitals.

Ballarat didn't exactly come off smelling of roses in the survey and readers took to The Courier's website and social media to defend the city.

So we should. It's true that Ballarat faces some serious challenges across a range of infrastructure and social issues but the research failed to recognise the city's many great attributes in health, education, recreation and affordability.

Maybe the bank should have asked some people who live here first for their opinion, rather than just compiling hand-picked statistics.

andrew.eales@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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