Letter to the Editor: What do ratepayers want from councils?

DEAR News Of The Area,

I HAVE only lived in the City of Coffs Harbour for a short period of time, so I have little background to go on with this Council, but I have considerable experience with local government in other states in Australia and around the world and the song remains the same.

Recent news was that the State Government in NSW was setting up a committee to work out a better way of funding for local government.

The State Government wants to look at outgoing spending and the response from the City of Coffs Harbour General Manager was of course the opposite.

Reading the studies mentioned below will hopefully bring Council’s attention around to what the ratepayers’ expectations are.

No doubt it costs money to run a Council and provide the expected services, however it seems, according to the studies, those items are not in question.

It is the sulphurous discretionary spending of ratepayers money that is the issue.

It should be noted that State and Federal Governments are certainly not looking great when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money, but let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.

These three studies below will give Councillors a clear indication of what ratepayers’ and community expectations are regarding what local government does with our money.

The studies/surveys, two of which were conducted by Council Watch Victoria and one by Australian Catholic University (ACU) in conjunction with Australian National University (ANU), are recent, very comprehensive and encompass a wide range of data.

Study one: ‘The Changing Role of Local Government in Australia’ – ACU and ANU.

Study two: ‘Perceptions of Local Government – Council Watch Victoria.

Study three: ‘Council Budget Spending: Consumer Priorities – Council Watch Victoria.

The studies are quite consistent in what are the most and least important issues for councils to address and to spend time and ratepayers money on.

Most important: Roads, Rubbish, Footpaths, Planning, Aged Care, Parks and Gardens, Rates and Rate Capping.

Least important: Climate Change, Arts and Culture, Equity and Diversity, LGBTQIIA+, Refugees, Injecting Rooms.

It is relatively clear from the studies that ratepayers want councils and councillors to concentrate and fund local issues and to stay out of political and other contentious social issues.

I am relatively sure that if these studies and surveys were conducted in Coffs Harbour the results would be similar.
It is called local government for a reason – to govern and address local issues.

The studies clearly indicate that that is what the ratepayers want from our local government.

What we see from ‘representative government’ across all levels is a mindset that the funding provided by ratepayers and taxpayers is theirs (those governments) to spend as they see fit.

This is a mindset that ratepayers (and taxpayers) want to see purged from government and especially local government – it is not their money, it is our money.


1. Expectations – Council and ratepayers must agree on expectations regarding the services provided by and managed by the council.

A list of items and amount budgeted for each line item needs to be provided to the ratepayers via different sources each year prior to rates being struck and meetings and discussions held to get the opinion of the ratepayers if necessary.

2. Additional and discretionary spending – The Council must provide a “wish list” of additional and discretionary (A and D) spending items and costs to the ratepayers for approval and comment.

Most items could be addressed and accepted via a presented wish list and no items from the ‘Expectations’ list should appear on this list.

3. Capped discretionary spending – A cap to be put on any additional or discretionary items, for example a million dollars.

Any A and D Items put forth that would cost over the CDS (Capped Discretionary Spend) must be approved by the ratepayers.

Take for example the Council offices over the gallery, my understanding is that this was highly controversial, and overwhelmingly opposed by the ratepayers, but it was voted on and passed.

It is highly likely that if it was put to the ratepayers to decide it would not have passed.

A currently controversial item would be the purchase of the Jetty Foreshore land with the Council proposing to spend a huge amount of ratepayers’ money with no secure plan for the future of the property – certainly something the ratepayers should be strenuously consulted on.

4. Term limits – No persons should be in a position to spend or vote to spend ratepayers money for more than six years.

Local representatives, or any elected government position, is a service position not a career position.

If we elect the appropriate people who come in knowing that this is a service position, a CV builder, an opportunity to give back to the community knowing that they have a limited time to serve, we will get a lot better people and a lot better result for the rate payers and the community.

Respectfully yours,
Robert CRAIN,

2 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: What do ratepayers want from councils?

  1. I thought this a bit odd, so I looked up the studies referenced. Number one said EXACTLY the opposite to what Mr Crain says it said. To quote: “Most people surveyed agreed their local councils should engage with bigger, contentious issues.” More than 9 in 10 respondents to their survey answered that local councils should deliver services that contribute to a healthier and fairer society. 80% of respondents agreed that it is important for local government to engage with climate change. Of course that 80% ALSO thought roads, rates, and rubbish important too, but the essence of the finding was that the vast majority of people want local government to engage with social issues. The whole list is the research findings of the issues people want Councils to take on, and the issues Mr Crain has listed as “least important” were still nominated as important by more than three quarters of respondents. Studies two and three are both from the same, very vocal and politically active Victorian ratepayers group. The survey respondents are largely older men, many already on their database or membership list. Over 80% rate their Council’s performance as terrible or poor and nearly all of them believe there is corruption in their Council. So I think it is fair to say these were surveys of disgruntled ratepayers. The survey designs are so full of leading questions, that what is amazing is that a seriously significant number of people, nevertheless, ranked community development, arts and culture, youth services, environment and climate change among the essential, core services (please pick only the items you consider absolutely essential) that Council should provide.

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