FORMER Fremantle MP Adele Carles says Fremantle council is too “secret” about its finances after locals were locked out of a meeting on Wednesday where the city’s valuers explained why its land holdings fell by $54 million last financial year.
While much of the devalued land relates to parks and open space and is really just book value, the council’s controversial purchase of a $7.8 million Jones Street property for a new depot is looking more exposed after its value slumped by $3.4m.
On the flip side, the value of council buildings jumped $35m, including its temporary offices at Fremantle Oval which were worth a cool $4.2m extra.
But Ms Carles said ratepayers were interested in understanding the yo-yoing values and she’d been asked to accompany a group to last Wednesday’s audit and risk committee to hear Griffin Valuation’s explanations.
When told it was not an open meeting, she asked if a small contingent of five people could attend that particular section of the meeting, but was also rebuffed.
“This level of secrecy is surprising and concerning, particularly given the financial problems caused by the new civic building, which has many local residents worried,” Ms Carles told the Herald.
Ms Carles said the land where the council’s new Walyalup Civic Centre was being built had dropped in value by $9.3m and she wanted to know why.
The committee will also look at the rescue plan for the construction of the civic centre, which Ms Carles said was very much in the public interest.
“With Pindan gone, council borrowing $20m for the new build and only $3.6m left in the kitty to complete the build, council will need a miracle to be relocated into the building by November as promised,” she said.
“Despite council’s promise in the business case that this build would pay for itself, we now find that council has saddled its ratepayers with an additional $20m debt and this may well increase before this sad story is concluded.”
Ms Carles isn’t the only one querying the council’s transparency, as noted in the agenda: “With the release of the audited financial statements for June 2020, queries have been raised by various community members as to the reasons for the changes to these valuations and whether there are any financial concerns as a result
of these changes,” the officer’s report notes.
Cr Marija Vujcic was one of those questioning the council’s books after the audited figures showed a net loss of around $8.5m last financial year.
She told the Herald she refused to vote to accept the figures because there was no explanation provided in the accompanying report – earning her an earbashing from the CEO.
The council did provide an emailed explanation after the meeting, which was also forwarded to the Herald when we also queried the mystery loss.
The council claimed the complete removal of a surf club and toilets from the council’s books and a write-off of demolished properties were in response to changes in accounting standards which were only introduced in November 2020. But when the Chook checked, the standard changes were about councils not claiming a value for land they controlled but didn’t own.
We ran it past two chartered accountants and a bookkeeper, who all agreed the council’s response didn’t stack up; one said it appeared someone had simply made up an excuse to cover some sloppy bookkeeping picked up by the auditor.
He also took the council to task for claiming the auditors had given the city a “clean bill of health”, noting there were concerns raised about the city’s debt to service ratio, loose fraud prevention measures and poor IT controls.
He also backed Cr Vujcic in claiming the council’s monthly figures lacked transparency, saying things were being slipped by councillors without any notes, which wouldn’t be acceptable in the corporate sector where he worked.