A BODY representing Wimmera ratepayers at a state level has called on Horsham Rural City Council to drive down staff and administrative costs, and to focus on core services rather than masterplans.
Horsham council chief executive Sunil Bhalla has spoken against the Ratepayers Victoria analysis, saying the council was constantly searching for efficiencies.
Ratepayers Victoria has reviewed Horsham council's 2019-20 budget and forecasts for the next three financial years, after prompts from the newly-formed Horsham Rural Ratepayers and Residents, which is one of their subgroups.
Ratepayers Victoria president Dean Hurlston said Horsham council's expenditure on staff costs this financial year is predicted to reach $19.18 million, or 70 per cent of the amount the council will generate in income from rates.
"We look at council budgets all the time - including Horsham and Mildura in the last week. It's not uncommon for regional councils to have a higher rates revenue-to-labor cost ratio because the population is so much smaller and not growing sufficiently," he said.
"But if you're looking at councils as businesses, that (70 per cent ratio) is unviable and unsustainable, and without grant funding coming in the council would be bordering on insolvent and unable to deliver services.
"So either the staffing numbers are too high based on rates income, or the rates generated are not enough to sustain those staff. The council either needs to drive down expenditures where it can, or if not, then it should be amalgamated."
Mr Hurlston said Ratepayers Victoria's board comprised an accountant, tax agent, banker and auditor, and that it did not "take sides" in providing commentary about issues arising from local governments.
He said the organisation would never advocate for councils raising rates above the state government rate cap.
"That's not delivering ratepayers any more services," he said.
Sunil Bhalla said council had streamlined its staff in the past 12 months.
"I did a restructure last year - part of which was how we can have a sharper focus on how we can improve our customer service and make it more efficient," he said. "There has been a lot of realignment of roles and we are realising those benefits.
"Our staff wages are in line with what they should be because we deliver a lot of services in-house. Our parks and gardens team mow the nature strips, trim the trees... if we weren't employing those people, we would have to pay contractors to do that work - so it's a futile argument to try to link wages with the rate income."
Mr Bhalla said he believed the council did not feel the need to increase rates above the rate cap in coming years.
"In fact our rate increase this financial year is 2.25 per cent, when the cap is 2.5 per cent," he said.
"That's while we've increased our service delivery - especially for rural road maintenance and renewal."
Mr Bhalla also defended the draft City to River master plan, after Ratepayers Victoria said the council's emphasis on "ambitious" long-term plans was distracting from its role to provide core services.
"Part of the intent behind this plan is to create a long-term focus for grant funding," he said.
"Clearly, we don't have the capacity to do all these projects - so we will be relying on the state and federal government to assist us, and having a plan allows us to do that. The community needs all these things (in the plan)."
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