A $6.3 MILLION Federal Government grant to upgrade Coffs Harbour’s Sportz Central complex caused heated debate at Coffs Harbour City Council’s recent meeting, with some councillors calling for the funds to be reallocated elsewhere.
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The grant to fund the upgrade and extension of the sports facility was an election promise made by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Federal Member for Cowper Pat Conaghan, on behalf of the Coalition.
The grant forms part of the Female Facilities and Water Safety Program, and will be used to provide another full sized indoor basketball court, new accessible and female friendly amenities for players and officials, and other minor building upgrades and works at the Bray St, Coffs Harbour complex.
However, at Council’s recent ordinary meeting on Thursday, 10 September Cr Sally Townley moved an alternate recommendation for Council to write to the Federal Government seeking its agreement to use the grant funding for the refurbishment of Woolgoolga and Sawtell Pools instead, and for Council to include as an attachment a summary of its current design costing and pools strategy.
Cr Townley said her initial response was that Council “should actually refuse the money”.
“This money has come I guess somewhat unexpectedly, and outside our strategic plan,” Cr Townley said.
“Rather than just blindly taking the money knowing that there is going to be a cost, perhaps it’s worth writing a nice letter and saying ‘look wait but we’ve actually got some other watersports projects which are very much in line with our strategic objectives which we’ve got costings for, which have almost universal appeal’.
“It’s not saying that Sportz Central or people that play basketball aren’t worthy, but the fact is this grant money was given out by the Federal Government more or less randomly, unasked for, it hasn’t been ranked in order of need.”
Council’s General Manager Steve McGrath said pursuing this option would bring with it the risk of losing the money altogether.
“If you do this, be mindful of consequences, the Federal Government did provide these funds for a specific project,” he stressed at the meeting.
“If you want to pursue that option, you do so knowing there is a risk.”
Cr Keith Rhoades spoke against Cr Townley’s alternate recommendation and said it was “morally wrong”.
“The Federal Minister made a commitment to a project, and that project was Sportz Central,” Cr Rhoades said.
“You’ve had a community group out there that have put obviously a lot of work into lobbying, and in the end being successful to get the funding for the upgrade.
“To take that money off that project comes with an incredible risk of (the Federal Government) not then just saying no, but taking the money and reallocating it to possibly a project in Western Australia or South Australia.”
Cr John Arkan said it was important that the Council didn’t lose the substantial funding offered.
“This electorate is starved of Federal funds; a starved situation we’ve got to give some food to that area, and this electorate has been starved for a long time,” Cr Arkan said.
“A fundamental problem with this electorate is that we don’t get Federal and State funding adequately, and we all suffer as a city.
“That pile of Federal money coming to this electorate is unheard of almost, and I don’t want to risk it.”
Cr George Cecato expressed his concern that by doing this Council was opening up the door to take grant funding off other projects and use it elsewhere.
“If we open this door then what is stopping me at the next Council meeting from asking for the funds that we’ve got for Woolgoolga and allocating them to improve the Jetty Foreshore,” Cr Cecato said.
“This is a promise from the Deputy Prime Minister and our Federal Member for Cowper to a group that have been lobbying the government for years.
“What we are saying is that don’t bother lobbying the government because if you do and you get granted we are going to interfere with that.”
Cr Paul Amos agreed that this was “not a good look for Council”.
“We don’t want to go into that grey area,” Cr Amos said.
Cr Tegan Swan however didn’t see the risk involved in asking the Federal Government to reallocate the funding elsewhere.
“I think that we have a responsibility to our community,” Cr Swan said.
“We are the ones on the ground; we are the ones best placed to be able to see how it should be spent within our community.
“The alignment is not that far apart, we are still talking sports facilities for the community.”
Cr Townley’s alternate recommendation lost three votes to four.
The original Council recommendation to accept and delegate authority to the General Manager to enter into a grant agreement with the Federal Government Department of Health on behalf of Council for a total of $6.3 million for the Sportz Central upgrade was then carried unanimously by all councillors.
A further report will be provided to Council once more detailed project design and investigation has occurred to enable Council to consider the allocation of any further funding necessary to complete the project, and the project will be included in Council’s 2017-2022 Delivery Program and 2020/21 Operational Plan.
As part of the upgrade project, the skate park is proposed to be moved to the current location of the crickets nets, and the cricket nets will be relocated to the rear of the PCYC building.
By Emma DARBIN