Newcastle council’s spending priorities questioned by Independent councillors

By , 25/04/2020 19:36

APPROVED AND FINANCED: Newcastle council’s proposed solar farm, the size of five football fields, at Summerhill. Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes says it’s a key part of the council’s sustainability policy but some councillors are questioning its financials.NEWCASTLE’SIndependent councillors say they’re concerned about the council spending $8million to build an electricity-generating solar farm at the same time that it’s cutting $14 million from its capital works budget to help bring its finances under control.

Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes and council chief executive Jeremy Bath have justified the spending pattern, with Mr Bath saying that suggestions that the Summerhill solar farm was a“feel-good gesture, suggests a bias against either council and or renewable energy”.

Mr Bath said the solar farm was “cash-flow positive, financing itself from year one”.

But councillors Kath Elliott, John Church, Brad Luke and Allan Robinson have all confirmed concerns about the project, which was unveiledin September last year, with further detail–including $6.5-million of its funding being borrowedfrom the federal government– confirmeda week ago.

Cr Elliott, whose probing of the council budget resulted in councillors receiving 15 pages of line-by-line spending changes just minutes before last month’s council meeting, said it was impossible to make informed decisions about the solar farm and a range of other spending commitments because “the council is simply notproviding the detail we need”.

“The solar farm is part of our sustainability goal, which I support, but you have to balance that with financial prudence,” Cr Elliott said. “It might turn out to be financially advantageous as well as environmentally good but the information available so far seems to indicate that it’s a burden.”

Cr Church raised similar concerns, saying he supported the sustainability aspects of the solar farm but was unhappy about having to make such important spending decisions without a proper business case. He said he raised the issue with Mr Bath at Tuesday night’s councillor workshop and was “offered an opportunity to view the business case”.

He said Mr Bath was waiting for “the appropriate officer to return from overseas”.

“I trulyhope it’s cash flow positive from the startand is a raging success but we are yet to see the business case and look forward to the opportunity to see the business case,” Cr Church said.

Cr Robinson added his concerns to Cr Church’s.

Cr Luke said that despite the assurances given to councillors he did not believe the solar farm would prove to be“financially viable”.

He saidthe money was being borrowed from theClean Energy Finance Corporation to“make the council feel good”.

But Cr Nelmes disputed this, saying it was clear that the solar farm was “the best way” of reducing the council’s power bills. She cited a solar farm operated by Sunshine Coast Councilsince mid-2017as an example of what could be achieved.

Although Cr Church, especially, said he believed the “two sides” of the council were getting on well –with a lot of concerns worked out behind closed doors to “knock the edges” off their respective differences – he and his Independent colleagues were adamant that more needed to be done to present the council’s finances in a less “opaque” manner.

Mr Bath said the accounts were“presented in strict accordance” with the relevant standards. He said the council issued monthly budget statements to councillors, going “well beyond” the Office of Local Government minimum requirement of quarterly reporting.

He said the council had no plan to change the way it presented its budgets and said all new councillors were offered training workshops that included financial matters.

“While not compulsory, attendance at this training was offered in part to avoid the situation councilstaff are now being put in where they are forced to defend the transparency of their reporting,” Mr Bath said.

But Cr Elliott and Cr Church defended theirdetermination to ask “probing questions” of council staff.

Cr Elliott said the council was cutting its works budget to avoid going into deficit, which meant community groups, who had been told their projects were getting the go-ahead, were now suddenly finding things “scrapped arbitrarily”.

Mr Bath denied that road works in Newcastle East had been “prioritised” above other “planned and funded” projects but said“former staff” had been “overly optimistic” about the cost of the work.

“As a result, I have reset our spending priorities, rather than accept the financial implications of decisions made prior to my commencement, by former staff,” Mr Bath said.

Comments are closed

Panorama Theme by Themocracy