Funding for a project to renovate and reuse a historic house spiralled to more than five times the cost originally indicated to council, The Courier has learned.
The 19th-century Gatekeepers Cottage, transported from its former Gregory Street address to the North Gardens in June 2017, has cost the City of Ballarat more than half a million dollars.
In January 2017, a report indicated the cost would be "a maximum of $100,000 to relocate, refurbish and provide full services for the cottage."
The report also suggested the total "could be substantially reduced... via external funding sources". Councillors unanimously approved the report's recommendation to transport and refurbish the cottage. Its future use was not confirmed at that stage.
However, figures provided to The Courier by the City of Ballarat shows spending had already significantly exceeded that initial figure within a year of the cottage's transfer.
A spokesperson confirmed $181,110 was spent in the 2017-18 financial year, $301,757 in 2018-19, while $18,679 was spent during 2019- 20 when the refurbishment was completed.
There is no way I would have voted for anything that was going to be half a million dollarsCr Daniel Moloney, Lake Wendouree & Gardens Committee
They said tenders for parts of the project fell under the CEO approval category of the council's former procurement policy and were not considered by councillors on contracts committees.
The restoration of the Gatekeepers Cottage, whose most vocal and influential supporter was former mayor Cr Samantha McIntosh, was never highlighted as a major capital works project.
It raises serious questions about how the funding was prioritised without broader public awareness, as well as the oversight of projects involving ratepayers' money.
Several councillors have expressed their disappointment and surprise at the costs, with the Chair of the Lake Wendouree and Gardens Committee Cr Daniel Moloney calling for the matter to be looked into.
The Courier understands that the cottage had not been part of forward budget planning, and that funding had not been set aside. There was no mention of the cottage in budget documents published in the past three years.
The spending did appear, however, in the detailed quarterly financial reports published in May over the past three years, which were considered by councillors in the lead-up to budgets. As far as The Courier has been able to establish, nobody flagged the difference between the figure originally cited and the spending outlined in financial statements.
In May 2018, for example, the report showed there was a forecast spend of $195,089 for the year - yet nothing was included in the budget. The following year, a line buried on page 487 of the May agenda also outlined a budget of $300,000 for "Gardens House Relocation". Again, the project was not outlined in the subsequent budget.
Cr McIntosh said the project had been "a very important one". She said that works on Disability Discrimination Act compliance had been "expensive".
"The return to our community has already been significant," she said. "The BotaniKIDS project is a wonderful one that has already been a proven success."
Asked how involved she was in the project after it was approved, Cr McIntosh said: "I continuously walked up around the lake, I continuously walked around the fencing to see how the project was moving on, as other councillors would as well.
"I did my job as a councillor to keep an eye on how the project was moving forwards, and I still do the same."
Cr McIntosh said council officers reported back to the council assembly "on many occasions" on the project's progress. Asked whether she ever inquired about costs, Cr McIntosh said: "I would need to go back and have a look at the process."
There are different projects within this package of works, and I think it's really important you are very clear about thatFormer mayor Cr Samantha McIntosh
When pressed on whether she would give a direct answer on her view of the project's value for money, Cr McIntosh said: "No, because you are not asking the correct question."
"There are different projects within this package of works, and I think it's really important you are very clear about that."
Cr McIntosh also said she had requested a detailed breakdown of costs from council officers.
On her LinkedIn profile, Cr McIntosh outlines one of her successes as "securing funding for the Gatekeepers Cottage repositioning".
The vast majority of the project's funding - almost 90 per cent - was funded by the City of Ballarat. There was a $40,000 anonymous donation to transport the house, $20,000 from the Friends of Botanical Gardens Foundation for the refit, and a further $5,000 rotary club donation.
A City of Ballarat spokesperson said the funds covered "a new foundation, removal of hazardous materials including asbestos, a deck area for outdoor education sessions, external and internal repairs, reconstruction of heritage elements, paths and landscaping to link the cottage to the rest of the gardens and its reopening event."
They also said the estimated annual upkeep costs would be around $10,000.
The author of the original recommendation approved by councillors - which included the $100,000 figure - was recorded as Terry Demeo, the former director of infrastructure and environment. Mr Demeo resigned in May after the release of an Ombudsman report that criticised the council's recruitment and procurement processes.
The devil appears to have been in the detail of the executive summary, which said funding "would be dealt with as an operational matter and is not considered a key determinate [SIC] in Council's in principle decision."
A council spokesperson explained that works were funded through the council's facilities management budget.
"As it had now become a purely organisational matter due to the Council vote, it required no further input from councillors.
"Without a specific use initially identified as to what the building was to be used for, there was no way of capturing all works within one project plan or tender."
It's not one of the best projects the city has ever done. I hope the councillors have recognised that sometimes in public life you can't be as opportunistic as might be easy to do elsewhereCEO Janet Dore
It is unclear if any planned works were postponed due to the refurbishment.
Cr Moloney said he voted for the works on the basis of it costing the initial sum cited. "When it gets to be five times that total, that warrants further investigation," he said. "There is no way I would have voted for anything that was going to be half a million dollars."
"You need to be able to see a global figure for a project, not something which has just been presented as small bits of work," he said. "Bigger projects should definitely be part of forward planning."
The CEO Janet Dore said she did not think there was anything wrong with the project in procurement terms. However, she queried the council's decision to approve moving the building without confirming detailed costs or its future use.
"It may have been the wrong way round. Yes, we are going to learn from that," she said. "It's not one of the best projects the city has ever done. I hope the councillors have recognised that sometimes in public life you can't be as opportunistic as might be easy to do elsewhere.
"Yes, it's a nice idea [to save an old building] - but actually what is it going to cost ratepayers? What are the ongoing costs? That's what I would expect to examine before that kind of decision would be made."
The Friends of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens were the community group who enlisted council help for the house's transfer and refurbishment.
It's a really good asset for Ballarat, and I don't think it should be drawn into this sort of political argumentRobert Selkirk, Friends of Ballarat Botanical Gardens president
Elizabeth Gilfillan, the chair of the Friends of Ballarat Botanical Gardens Foundation, said the organisation was not privy to the details of the spending.
She said she was saddened by any controversy over the funding, and that the cottage - which houses the BotaniKIDS educational facility - was "doing wonderful things"
Robert Selkirk, the Friends of the Ballarat Botanical Gardens president, said he was "a bit mystified" why The Courier was questioning the costs of the works.
He said a lot of work on the cottage had been done over a long period of time "for the benefit of the Botanical Gardens and the people of Ballarat. ... It's a really good asset for Ballarat, and I don't think it should be drawn into this sort of political argument."
The Courier clarified that no councillor, nor anyone linked with any political party, prompted any queries into the project's costs.
Mr Selkirk said: "I think it's most odd that this is coming up at this period of time. This happened years ago. Why now?"
THE HISTORY OF THE COTTAGE
The Victorian home was built in the 19th century - around the 1860s - and is thought to be one of two gatekeeper cottages that were built in the Botanical Gardens.
It was intended as a home for one of the gardeners and their family. According to the Friends of Botanical Gardens website, it was built near the Northern Gates and was relocated to 1414 Gregory St in 1933 at a cost of 100 pounds. The gardener and family, followed by subsequent generations, continued to live there for around the next 80 years.
Around 2013, there followed a long conversation over what to do with the increasingly dilapidated building. While relatives of the owners strongly wanted to donate the building to the gardens, council officers - and councillors - had consistently decided against funding any transfer - until the January 2017 vote.
An interim heritage order was placed over it, then lapsed. Owners said the presence of the house was preventing its sale, and said they would be seeking to demolish it if no solution could be found.
Then following the January 2017 vote, the house was donated to the community, through the Friends of the Botanical Gardens, on the proviso it be transported away.
The house was moved to its present site in June 2017. The official opening for its restoration took place in November last year.
Now closed due to COVID-19, it has hosted children's nature education program BotaniKIDS. Usually it serves as an educational resource for adults and children, with details of plants, their evolution and links to the gardens. It is also a base for the Friends of The Botanical Gardens.
November 2014: Stalemate over historic gift
Ms Guthrie said the family was left in a predicament where they could not sell the cottage or land.
June 2016:Council vote on heritage house
Councillors will vote on recommendations to confirm no financial commitment to the relocation of the house currently into the Ballarat Botanical Gardens.
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