In the darkest economic circumstances in more than a generation, councillors agreed to put the City of Ballarat's draft budget plan out to the public last night.
Discussion at the special council meeting - conducted using Microsoft Teams and the first ever held virtually - indicated a belt-tightening approach to the COVID-19 crisis rather than taking on more debt to kickstart the ailing local economy.
The draft budget will include details of services based on a rates freeze. While full details of the capital works are still under wraps, councillors mentioned funds put aside for several existing projects - such as the rejuvenation of Bakery Hill and Her Majesty's Theatre.
The Mayor Cr Ben Taylor also referred to a core capital works budget of $52 million, which compares to a budget of $59.5million outlined in the 2019/ 20 budget.
If confirmed it would also be around $10million less than $62 million projected for 2020/21 in the strategic resource plan for last year's budget.
Borrowings - highlighted as $17m in agenda documents - are planned, but the City of Ballarat's director of business services Glenn Kallio said these would be geared towards covering forecast cashflow shortfalls.
These were anticipated with residents more likely to struggle paying their rates on time due to the economic difficulties.
Mr Kallio said that if the situation is better than expected, not as much money would be borrowed - and that the intention would be to pay any loan back within two to five years.
The impact of the proposal to freeze rates - by far the most significant source of income for councils - for the next financial year was also discussed.
Answering a query from the deputy mayor Cr Belinda Coates, Mr Kallio said freezing rates would shave around $2.5 million from the overall budget for the next financial year, with that amount compounding over time.
He said that if the budget goes ahead as drafted, the City of Ballarat would seek to make savings, potentially by not replacing staff vacancies. The Courier understands council may also look to cut rental expenditure.
I know myself and a lot of the other mayors and CEOs across the state of Victoria have been asking for assistance [from] the state government to help out [so] we can pass on to our ratepayersThe Mayor Cr Ben Taylor
Cr Taylor cited several existing projects that would continue to be funded - such as $1 million for the delivery of new LED lights as well as $500,000 for the Urban Forestry plan, which aims to increase canopy cover in the city to 40 per cent.
He also said "tourism and events" would need to be a focus "as we come out the other end of this."
Cr Amy Johnson had previously asked how a budget allocation for events, creative cities and tourism - stated at $6.8million - compared to previous years. The director of development and planning Angelique Lush said there was no change in the allocation.
There will also be $1.6 million set aside for advocacy and lobbying to Victorian and Australian governments for investment.
Neighbouring councils are also outlining their budgets - all so far with one notable difference to the City of Ballarat's.
READ MORE: Council faces $15m shortfall
Municipalities such as Golden Plains Shire and the Pyrenees have put out draft budgets which propose a maximum hike in rates - set at two per cent for this year by the Essential Services Commission.
Meanwhile the City of Greater Geelong this week released a draft budget incorporating a 1.9 per cent rates increase and $66.9m of new loans as it lines up a beefed up capital works program.
The proposed freeze on rates and fees follows calls from the shadow state minister for local government Tim Smith for councils not to increase their rates.
"We know we are affecting future budgets - this is an opportunity we can do something, even though it's something small," Cr Taylor said.
In moving the motion, Cr Taylor called it a "very responsible budget", while calling for more funding at the state level.
"I know myself and a lot of the other mayors and CEOs across the state of Victoria have been asking for assistance by the state government to help out [so] we can pass on to our ratepayers," he said.
While supporting the recommendation to put the motion out to the public Cr Daniel Moloney encouraged community members to put forward their views, particularly on the proposed freeze.
"Taking $2.5 million out of the budget this year has a significant impact and it might affect our ability to offer more targeted relief," he said, although stating he did not have a view on the matter himself.
Cr Mark Harris also urged the public to be in touch with ideas, whether to advocate for more borrowing or less.
"I am looking to get every conceivable idea on this budget so we can form a whole of community view," he said.
Full details of the draft budget will be released to the public on Saturday.
Consultation will then begin next Monday (May 11) with public submissions open until June 8. A further special council meeting will be held on June 17, with council scheduled to make a final call on June 24.
Councils across Victoria had been allowed some wriggle room by the local government minister Adem Somyurek, who is permitting final budgets to be pushed back two months until the end of August.
However, the City of Ballarat report said it would be "prudent and fiscally responsible" to adopt the budget as originally planned by the end of June.
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