20/07/2020 - 18:00

Councils bearing weight of pandemic

20/07/2020 - 18:00

Bookmark

Upgrade your subscription to use this feature.

If there’s anything to be gleaned from Premier Mark McGowan’s extraordinary 89 per cent approval rating, it’s that the public is almost singularly attuned to how the state government has responded to the pandemic.

Councils bearing weight of pandemic
John Walker (left), with Joondalup mayor Albert Jacob, says even financially strong councils will struggle to provide relief to their constituents. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

If there’s anything to be gleaned from Premier Mark McGowan’s extraordinary 89 per cent approval rating, it’s that the public is almost singularly attuned to how the state government has responded to the pandemic.

After all, it’s on the back of the state government’s strict quarantine and border control measures that Western Australia has managed to return to business as usual and entertain the possibility of sell-out crowds for AFL matches at Optus Stadium scheduled this month.

What has been perhaps underestimated in that time, though, is the response of other levels of government.

In particular, councils have provided rate relief and capital works to simulate local economies in the pandemic’s aftermath.

That issue came to the fore late last month during the launch of Business News’ ‘Business of Local Government’ supplement, a joint production with the Western Australian Local Government Association.

Commenting on the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s pandemic relief efforts, which have included $500,000 in support for arts and cultural initiatives and $1 million for sports and recreation, chief executive John Walker expressed some dismay with the state government’s blanket directive in March for councils to freeze rates intake.

That request, made by Local Government Minister David Templeman, vexed Mr Walker.

He pointed out the complexity of financial situations for WA’s 139 geographically and demographically disparate councils.

For a government like the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, which turned a profit of $11.3 million last year according to Business News’ Data & Insights, he pointed out that stimulus measures were viable, though financially onerous.

However, for smaller councils with smaller revenues, either as a result of a low rate base or other pre-existing financial difficulties, he said a top-down request to freeze rates and spend cash reserves was not entirely helpful.

“As a sector, I think, when it (the COVID-19 pandemic) comes so rapidly … it can catch you out,” he said.

“The lucky ones, the bigger ones, the Wanneroos, Joondalups, the Kalgoorlies, are probably able to cope and heed the call of government.

“Not everyone can afford to do that, and even the strong ones can struggle to do that in a good way.

“Strong councils are necessary to react (to these crises).”

Part of the issue, too, is that councils lack many of the traditional instruments that governments use to stimulate economies in downturn, such as access to a reserve bank or the ability to directly receive federal funding.

And while many of the state’s councils have followed Mr Templeman’s appeals, freezing rates and bringing forward capital and maintenance works, that has not been easy.

WALGA chief executive Nick Sloan noted during the discussion that local governments across WA had provided approximately $512 million in stimulus to community and business groups, including through grants and rent and rate relief.

And while that had allowed vital services to continue, he emphasised the cost of those measures would be tangible.

“On the surface, some of those (measures) roll off the tongue pretty easily, but what they represent are really difficult decisions that local governments had to make within their business to support their community,” he said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

Subscription Options