Hepburn Shire Council has adopted a $59 million budget for 2023/2024 with investment focused on completing major capital works and delivering services to the community in line with the Council Plan and Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plan.

The approved capital expenditure budget includes $5.9 million for the completion of the Creswick Trails project as the largest component. Three million dollars has been allocated for Historic Wheelers Bridge in Lawrence with $2.8 million Federal Government funding for the project. Upgrading and resurfacing of local roads has been allocated $2.73 million.

Remediation works at Daylesford Town Hall have been budgeted to cost $1.0 million mainly for repair and replacement of the roof.

Rate increases have been capped at 3.5 percent in line with the Victorian Government’s Fair Go Rates System. This compares to a 7 percent CPI increase in the year to March 2023.

The annual waste charges will increase on average by 6.2% reflecting increased service costs to users of the service. This increase will amount to an average additional cost of $35 per property per year.  The standard annual fee for a residential property (weekly garbage collection and fortnightly recycling) will now be $570 or the equivalent of $10.96 per week.

Rates and charges make up over half of Council’s annual budgeted revenue.

A significant component of Council’s operating expenditure for the financial year ($6.50 million) relates to costs associated with storm recovery works undertaken by Council to support the community.

This budget proposes $5.9 million of new borrowings to support the delivery of key infrastructure projects.  This includes $1.0 million allocated as stage one of vital remedial works for the Daylesford Town Hall and $4.9 million for the construction of the 60-kilometre Creswick Mountain Bike Trail Network.  The Trail project is expected to be delivered for $9.4 million (2017-2024) with secured government funding of $2.57 million.

The budget includes a non-capital  expenditure of $200,000 for “staff accommodation and Birch ward community facilities” (which would include the library and public toilets). No capital expenditure has been allocated for this item so it appears that a solution to this long-running problem is still some time away.

“The project has a range of complexities to work through, including operational requirements, siting, costing, and scope. Council officers are in the early planning stages of this project,” said Council CEO, Bradley Thomas, in response to a query from The Wombat Post. “Projects of this size typically take a number of years to plan well. Previous community feedback is being considered in the planning and there will be opportunities for further community engagement as the project progresses. Further details will be shared later this year.”

Mayor, Cr Brian Hood, said the budget has been carefully developed in one of the toughest financial environments in recent history.

“Our Shire has been significantly impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic and multiple storm events over the last few years. Now we are also facing high inflation and interest rates, sector-wide shortages of construction contractors and extraordinary increases to material and construction costs,” said Cr Hood.

“Council is in a delicate and challenging financial position which must continue to be prudently managed if community needs are to be met and longer-term viability enhanced.

A number minor changes were made in finalising the draft budget approved in May. These changes were due to funding announcements, a review of the capital projects listing, and necessary corrections.  Community feedback was considered but did not result in any changes. Adjustments meant that Council’s targeted unrestricted cash balance at 30 June 2024 was reduced from the draft budget amount of $1,044,000 to $963,520 in the adopted budget. This is recognised as a very small buffer against unforeseen events.

“Balancing the financial outlook, community expectations and statutory responsibilities will continue to be challenging, especially given the pressures on government grant funding and from the State Government rate cap.,” said Cr Hood. “Despite the tough financial environment, we are pleased to have adopted a budget that allows us to fund important programs and projects that align to our Community Vision and Council Plan, while allowing us to continue the repair of Council’s financial position.

There was some dissent among councillors in discussions of the budget. Councillors Bray, Drylie and Halliday expressed concerns that the budget failed to prioritise issues of affordable housing, sustainability, youth and the arts. An amendment to include an additional $60,000 in the budget to support an affordable housing officer was defeated only after the Mayor, Cr Brian Hood, used his casting vote. Councillors Hood, Henderson and Hewitt argued that Council’s affordable housing policy was still out for community consultation and that it would be inappropriate to allocate funding before the policy was adopted.

Cr Bray also expressed disappointment that none of the 31 comments made in the community consultation process about the draft budget had resulted in any changes to the final budget. The final budget report includes a summary of feedback from the community but argues that in all cases there was sufficient provision in the budget to cover the points raised.

In the end, the budget was passed by a vote of four to two with Cr Drylie and Cr Bray voting against approval.

CR Simpson, who was absent from the meeting for health reasons had voted against the draft budget at the May Special Meeting of Council because of concerns about the high cost of the Creswick Trails project and the borrowings required to complete the project.

The budget is available to view on Council’s website at https://www.hepburn.vic.gov.au/budget.


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