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Funding shortage threatens northern infrastructure

Roadworks like this in Fairy Meadow are under threat because of funding shortfalls. PHOTO: Warren & Diana Ackary.

Roadworks like this in Fairy Meadow are under threat because of funding shortfalls. PHOTO: Warren & Diana Ackary.

MAJOR infrastructure improvements such as the refurbishment of Nicholson Park at Woonona and the upgrade to the Thirroul Beach Pavilion may be delayed because of a Wollongong City Council funding shortage.

The projects are not listed for funding by Council until at least after 2016-17, and are just two under threat.

Other projects under a cloud are the implementation of the Bald Hill Master Plan, construction of a purpose-built Helensburgh Library and the refurbishment of the Stanwell Park Beach Kiosk.

Wollongong City Council’s general manager David Farmer today took the unprecedented step of going public with his concerns about the long term financial sustainability of Wollongong Council.

On the back of the release of the NSW Government TCorp report, ‘Financial Sustainability of the NSW Local Government Sector, and the Independent Local Review Panel’s final discussion paper, Council is reviewing its financial strategy.

“For a number of years, Councils have been voicing concerns about how local government is financed in NSW,” Mr Farmer said.

“The recent NSW Government TCorp report, and the Independent Local Review Panel’s final discussion paper both highlight the financial sustainability of council’s is a serious issue.

“Over the last five years we’ve been working to improve our financial sustainability and find savings in how we do things.  This is so we can invest back into maintaining our ageing buildings, footpaths, playgrounds, roads and other essential community infrastructure.  We’ve managed to improve the operating results to allow an additional $18.2million year on year to be spent on the renewal of assets and we will continue to look for efficiencies.”

Despite this, Mr Farmer said Council was still unable to fund a range of vital maintenance and repair work – let alone construction of new facilities. He provided some examples of important unfunded projects including the ongoing need to maintain roads and footpaths and work on improving Bald Hill.

“Unless we act we could see a future scenario in which two of our nine rock pools have been closed due to lack of funding, Harry Graham Drive is permanently closed due to landslips or rock falls, our surf club buildings have degraded to the point of closure and swing sets have been removed from parks because we haven’t the funds to upgrade them. And this would be just the beginning. Some community halls might have For Sale signs on them because Council can’t afford to maintain them and the Stanwell Park Kiosk is still waiting for funds for a refurbishment – three years from now.

“This kind of scenario is very real not just for Wollongong but also for the majority of Councils across NSW without significant change – either in the way local government is funded or in the way and number of services Councils provide their communities.”

The TCorp report rated 25 percent of Council’s in NSW as being in a weak or very weak financial position. Wollongong was rated as being in a ‘moderate’ position.

Mr Farmer said the rating is “hardly a resounding endorsement of our future financial viability”.

“What it means is our future is in our hands but we will have to make some hard decisions.

“As part of the review of our current draft 2013 – 2017 Community and Strategic Plan and Budget, Council is looking for ways to ensure Council’s financial sustainability improves.

“To date we have been successful in obtaining grant funding and government loans for a number of key projects to enhance our road and footpath network – however no matter how many footpaths we repair or construct we still cannot fill the gap between our budget and the amount needed to maintain all our assets (valued at $2.3 billion).

“Over the next 12 months we’ll continue to look at how we do things to try and find further savings.  Longer term, Council will need to talk as a community about reducing services in some areas to fund community needs in other areas or asking the community to pay more.”

About Mick Roberts

A newspaper journalist, writer and local historian, Mick Roberts specialises in Australian cultural history, particularly associated with the Australian hotel and liquor industry. Mick has had an interest in revealing the colourful story of pubs, inns and associated industries in the Sydney and Illawarra regions of NSW for over 30 years. He is currently working on a comprehensive history of the hotel and liquor industry in the Illawarra region of NSW. Besides authoring a number of history books, Mick has owned and operated several community newspapers. He was one time editor of the Wollongong Northern News, The Bulli Times, The Northern Times, The Northern Leader and The Local - all located in the Wollongong region. As a journalist he has worked for Rural Press, Cumberland (News Limted), Sydney based, City News, and is now with Torch Publications.

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