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Confession of a Council Stooge: How I Created Budget Propaganda

Two Years ago I volunteered for a Council engagement exercise to develop a Vision for Maribyrnong Community for 2040. My suggestions are now being used to justify Council priorities that were never intended. Mea Culpa.

40 of us were chosen, selected to try to cover all wards of the council as well as age groups, cultures, and professions.

We volunteered four full Saturdays during 2018 along with paid staff from Council’s community engagement team, paid outside facilitators and paid guest speakers.

Early on while the ‘need’ for the Vision 2040 document was being explained (“Drives Council Strategy”) some residents asked questions relating to affordability and SMART goals, so that we could outline something reasonable, rather than aiming at pie-in-the-sky goals with huge price-tags attached.

We were told firmly we were creating a Vision. It was not a plan. It was about long-term ideals, so restrictions like deadlines or 5 year frameworks or any references to budgets were not appropriate.

Hey presto: the 6 key themes from Vision 2040 now form the template for the Maribyrnong City Council budget.

Which means the Budget is illegible and hides a multitude of sins which only the very determined can uncover.

For example, one of the six themes we arrived at was ‘Quality Spaces and Places’. Residents were concerned about high-density, poor quality apartments taking over neighbourhoods with little regard for private open spaces. We envisioned lots of community centres within easy access for residents and playgrounds and spaces for our elderly citizens and sports groups and cultural communities.

And although we were told in 2018 not to put a cost on our ‘Vision’ there it is: Strategic Objective 3: $21.6m in Budget FY21: (the Covid budget.)

The four major initiatives highlighted under Strategic Objective 3 are:

  • Maribyrnong Reserve Community Facilities Plan-$216,000 in capital works

  • The NeXT project a huge arts/theatre/library complex which will cover the current Footscray Library and the carparks along Paisley Street- $1m in capital works

  • Town Hall renewal- $1.2m in capital works

  • High point activity centre - the Infrastructure needed when developers start building high-rises where the old Maribyrnong detention centre was. - nothing in capital works

My memory is a bit hazy so thank heavens I took notes. We acknowledged, grudgingly that the state government rules the high-rise and there’s not much we can do about it at the local level. So we insisted on quality high-density, with a proportion of affordable housing.

Hasn’t happened. That bit probably dropped out of the final Vision. Council ended up writing a lot of it because we were so rushed at the end.

Back to the community centres that we were so keen on in our Vision planning. I’ve had a look at the ‘buildings' section of the capital work budget for FY21 and here’s how the numbers stack up:

Actual construction on community buildings (which includes $200,000 for the Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre) is total spending of $3.12m.

Total spending on designers and consultants for the TownHall project and the mega art gallery/theatre.library hub is $2.2m. And another $1.6m on designers for the new Recwest facility.

So the community is getting minority benefit from this year’s budget. Most of the money being spent on buildings is actually being spent on consultants and designers, and most of the designers are doing work for Council.

This is not what I had in mind when I gave up my Saturdays to plan a Vision for my community.

And this is how the Maribyrnong Budget ‘allocates’ staff who work to achieve our vision of Quality Spaces and Places:

Animal Management, Asset Protection, Asset Management, Building Services, Capital Projects Delivery, City Design, Compliance, Development Engineering, Environmental Health, Facilities Management, Fleet Management, Local Laws and Open Space Planning.

Assigning these service areas to their real Council work areas, half of them work in Planning Services and the other half in Infrastructure Services. And that makes much more sense than "Strategic Objective 3: Quality Spaces and Places."

Back to the capital works budget, two of the 'Quality Spaces and Places' service areas who claim to do planning and design are:

  • Capital Projects: $587,000

  • City Design $662,000

So that’s two areas totalling just over $1m who do design and consulting. But there’s many more service areas dedicated to planning and design of our ‘quality spaces and places.’

  • Major projects $709,000

  • Strategic Planning $2.1m

  • City Planning $1.2m

Five staffed service areas in Council that all claim to have something to do with quality building and design and still Council needs to allocate another $3.8m to outside designers, planners and consultants.

This was not my vision for Council. When I volunteered my time along with other residents and shared ideas and hopes and common Council problems, I did not ‘Vision’ a Council that spends more money on castles than community centres.

I did not ‘Vision’ a council that prioritises planners and designers and managers over staff who lend books and manage community art centres, and neighbourhood centres and senior citizens centres.

But Council’s budget says that I did.

To my fellow residents: "I’m very, very, sorry.


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