It’s all about the money

FRANK MOFFLIN is a Fremantle councillor. Having gone through possibly the most tumultuous period in the city’s history, he says it’s highlighted why we can’t just go back to “normal”. 

TWELVE months into my term as a councillor, I have taken time to reflect on what I have learnt. 

Apart from all of the day-to-day stuff such as how council works, what you can and can’t do, one thing has stood head and shoulders above the rest and one which I believe will be the most significant challenge for the council over the coming years; it is about the money! 

When I was elected as Hilton Ward councillor, rather than making commitments which I had no knowledge whether I could meet I talked about the skills, experience and values which I would bring to the council chamber. 

And, in this year like no other, it is fortunate that I took this approach as I would have ended up with mud on my face. 

With a budget so tight, discussions have focused more so on what doesn’t get done rather than what great new initiative we might be able to deliver; the delivery of basics are challenging enough. 

Suggestions

Numerous times I have received very reasonable suggestions from residents about improvements they would like to see such as replacing bus shelters or ensuring streets are clean.

Invariably the response I have had to give is: “That’s a good idea but that is not in the budget and it is unlikely that we would be able to get it in the upcoming budgets.”

This is not to say that the finances per se are poorly managed; in fact the limited finances are being managed well, but the challenge is to have sufficient funds to deliver what we need to deliver as a local government.

Of course, Covid-19 has smashed the city’s finances but if there can be a silver lining to this, it is that, a light has been shone on the pending financial challenge and we now have an opportunity to pull the band aid off rather than letting it drift off slowly in the swimming pool. 

The primary responsibility of the council must be to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the city; this is a commitment we have to both current and future residents to provide the kind of city which they desire and this is the reason we must break out the microscope.

Today, community expectations are greater than our capacity to deliver and while a gap is always likely to exist, at the moment it is too great and likely to grow. 

While we must contribute to the planning of long-term strategic changes, such as the future of the port, to ensure that Fremantle realises the greatest benefit and we expect positive outcomes from the currently named Kings Square project, sustainable solutions must be found for the city’s finances sooner rather than later.

A mature community conversation is required where everything is on the table: the services which we deliver and how we pay for them. 

This conversation must agree the level of community services in combination with new ways to increase our income.

From the feedback I have received, our community is not willing to accept lower levels of service, but there are always opportunities to reprioritise which should be looked at, but I will park lower service levels and focus on the challenges on both sides of the financial ledger. 

Our revenue is not only low due to a small rate base but it has been shown that what was a strength in the past, a diversified revenue stream, is not as beneficial as what we once thought. 

Parking, which contributes significantly to our income is susceptible to shocks beyond our control and we must find income which provides greater certainty. 

Expense

On the expenses side we have ageing assets which have significant costs to just maintain them in a safe state and we are, if not in name, a regional location, the second city of Western Australia, and we must deliver services which are in accordance with this status. These are services which our neighbours don’t need to deliver. 

In the past, politically challenging suggestions have failed to get off the ground: amalgamations went nowhere; self interest has prevented mergers; and increasing rates for anyone is never popular; increasing growth of residents in the CBD is happening but we need more sooner. 

What else could be out there? It has been suggested that a lack of government funding for the state assets which we run is symptomatic of being a safe seat. 

Arguing this is most probably not beneficial to anyone but we must, regardless of who is in power, demonstrate Fremantle’s value to that state and form a true partnership with the state government where we can all share in Fremantle’s successes.

These are important questions to be asked and changes need to be made. 

As a councillor I know that I may not be in office to see the outcomes of all the decisions we make, but when I look at my kids, I know we must make the right decisions to ensure intergenerational equity and to ensure they can have the kind of Fremantle which they deserve.

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