Council’s decision on 23/11/21 not to award the tender for the Hepburn Hub at the Rex has led to considerable comment in Birch Ward. As one of your Birch ward councillors I want to take this opportunity to explain my position.
Residents and ratepayers cannot be aware of all of the history of this project. Council purchased the building in 2014 for $6m with an unknown valuation and the then-Councillors were advised that the estimated cost to renovate the building and provide a range of services including a library, staff offices and community auditorium (primarily for use as a small single screen cinema) was a further $1m. For a number of reasons, the project was unable to be completed with, firstly Hepburn Shire as the owner-builder and then with a reputable builder, Hutchinson’s. Until the termination of the Hutchinson’s contract the decisions taken for the Rex had been the responsibility and initiative of the previous two Councils.
It was at this point that this current Council became responsible for the project’s future.
Deeply concerned with the escalating cost and extensive delays, this new group of councillors, whilst I was mayor, conducted a workshop with Council management in mid-2021 to explore all options – including completing the project, ceasing the project or selling the building and leasing it back. In order to avail ourselves of more up to date information, so that we could make the best evidence-based decision, we undertook a new tender process after the contract with Hutchison’s was terminated. As a result of this process, the current estimated costs to complete the project scope (to include a library, staff offices, cinema) was well over $15m. This estimate did not include other costs including sustainability measures, the renovation of the façade and landscaping. It is unknown what the final costs would have been if the project had proceeded – it would therefore have been reckless to award a $6m+ contract not knowing what the full costs would be. It is fair to say the total costs would have been close to $16m.
Hepburn Shire does not have the money to fund a project of that scope. It would require obtaining additional loans thereby burdening ratepayers across the whole Shire for a number of years.
There was never any community consultation in 2014 about this project and, if the project had proceeded, the financial burden for all ratepayers was considerable.
Given this cost increase (from $7m in 2014 to $15m+ in 2021), that no new work had been done in that time, and the lack of community consultation before commencing the project to determine if this was what ratepayers wanted or needed, Council made the decision to not award the tender. This meant that the Hepburn Hub at the Rex project will not proceed.
While the decision taken last week considered only the Rex, I was also very concerned that the decision would be taken in the absence of a strategy to address how we handle other Council buildings, including the Daylesford Town Hall. Another very troubling reality was that the $15m+ building would only ever accommodate about half of Council staff as so many are employed across the Shire in depots, libraries and in field-based roles. The concept of value for a $15m+ investment was brought into question.
Many decisions made during the history of this project have not yet been made public. Community members will be aware that the matter of how the project originated was self-reported to the Victorian Local Government Inspectorate to undertake an independent investigation. Council is awaiting the release of this investigation report but has no control over, or influence on, the release date as the Inspectorate is an independent body. I would hope that the public release of that report answers many of the questions that the public has and will shed new light on responsibility.
I understand that many residents may have a different view to myself. However I hope that you will accept that all of the Councillors, including myself, considered the issue carefully and made what each considered to be the best decision for all residents and ratepayers across Hepburn Shire – under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
I am happy for Birch ward residents or ratepayers to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0408793941 if there are any questions about my position.
Birch Ward Councillor