Are we expecting too much from local government?
Ratepayers are restive. There is a limit to the number of projects the City of Ballarat ratepayers can be expected to fund.
Increasing costs have been driven by four main trends.
First of all, the other levels of government have foisted more onto local councils because “these matters are best dealt with at the local level”.
Second, councils cannot (and should not) attempt to provide all things for all people in response to never-ending demands.
Third, the cost of regional facilities is not shared equitably.
Fourth, the current legislation is not specific enough about core activities.
In contrast to the distinction between state and federal government functions, local government is actually constrained by its status as a creature of the state under legislative and political ties.
Since the first legislation in 1874 established a system of basic services provision, the huge expansion of activities over the last 150 or so years has increased the local rates burden to breaking point for many.
The current legislation definition starts with “peace and good government of … municipal districts” – how 1874 is that!
Functions are so broad and vague that they can cover any manner of projects, so it’s no wonder Ballarat City Council’s budget is all embracing.
The question is, have we come so far within our three-tier system of government that too many things have been left to the “lowest” level. Does this reflect an ever-higher level of expectation from communities, which may be neither affordable nor necessary? Or do we need a bigger scale to distribute the burden more equitably?
If we think about the council’s core responsibilities, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of activities. From traditional waste management to youth activities and grant programs, which are worthy activities. But which ones are the essential core?
What about the pricing of arts and sporting facilities? Should there be entry charges, higher fees and consideration of player payments, sponsorships and attendances? Where is the transparency of the choices involved in assessing business cases and community benefits?
Ballarat is the key regional centre for western Victoria, but its ratepayers are bearing too big a burden. Other regional cities such as Bendigo and Geelong have larger geographic areas, within which a bigger population shares regional facility costs.
Of course Ballarat, as the regional capital, should provide the cultural, recreational and community facilities for its broader western catchment. But regional users should also support them through making financial contributions to their maintenance.
What if Ballarat could expand to include Ballan, Meredith, Hepburn and Beaufort? Or even bigger than that, because in 2016 we need change to be sustainable.
Benefits would include the attainment of accessible and equitable services, opportunities for business and employment, equitable rates and charges, efficient and effective use of resources, and improvements to our overall quality of life in the region – just like the Local Government Act requires.
Will the next council have the foresight and courage to take up this challenge, or will its decisions be determined by the pressure groups in the chamber?
Janet Dore is chair of the Committee for Ballarat.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.