Under Victorian law, local councils are required to prepare a four-year plan within eight months of each council election. It’s a good system that forces longer-term planning based around the four-year election cycle, giving politicians a clear public platform and the administration specific goals to achieve. Each year, councils must also outline “annual actions”, and these are released with the draft annual budget in April-May, ahead of formal adoption in June following a public submissions process. The only problem with this system is that the long list of annual actions typically get swamped by the budget, when everyone focuses on issues like the rate rise, major capital works and car parking revenue. The City of Melbourne has tried something different this year with the early release of these 140 draft 2015-16 annual actions last Wednesday, well ahead of the budget, which will be unveiled, complete with a media lock-up, on Thursday, May 7. The idea of the early release is to try and stimulate more public discussion and engagement, which we hope will lead to some material amendments. We’re also listed the following item as general business at next Tuesday night’s committee meeting: “Verbal submissions on the proposed 2015-16 annual actions”. All 79 councils across Victoria struggle to get genuine and widespread community engagement with their budgets and annual actions, even though it involves the very important matter of outlining how about $4.7 billion of ratepayer funds will be spent in 2015-16. I’m happy to give $20 cash to the first three submitters who front up at Town Hall on Tuesday night to make a verbal submission and can even suggest some sensitive points to make about our long list of 2015-16 annual actions. For instance, the biggest contract that councils enter into is the enterprise agreement with their staff, which usually soaks up a majority of rate revenue. Procurement laws demand that every contract above $50,000 must be conducted by way of competitive tender and at Melbourne the councillors approve up to 50 of these each year. But we don’t get anywhere near the enterprise agreement, which, under Victorian law, is wholly delegated to the management. However, given that Melbourne’s EA expires on June 30, 2016, surely it would be appropriate to have the negotiation and finalisation of the next three-year enterprise agreement as one of our 2015-16 actions. At the moment, it is not mentioned in the top 140. The draft 2015-16 actions are also silent on the question of rate-capping, which commences with next year’s budget and will represent a big constraint on councils when it comes to continuing the long-term trend of above-inflation wage rises for staff. And given that the Andrews government is moving full pace on the $9 billion to $11 billion Metro Rail project right through the heart of Melbourne, don’t we need to say a bit more than “work with the State Government on the Melbourne Metro Rail Project”? Will Melbourne rate-payers be asked to contribute financially through some form of levy or special rate? This possibility has not yet been discussed with councillors but should become a very live question when you consider how other major rail projects across Australia have been funded. My favourite new proposed action for 2015-16 reads as follows:
"Plan and run three developer forums to improve communication with the development industry and increase our contribution to public debate about planning and major development applications."
At the moment, the only way council engages with developers and property owners on general issues is when we get invited to attend or speak at industry events, such as the regular Property Council forums. But why should the property industry control the timing, location and agendas for these public debates? Instead, the council will now invite everyone from the Planning Minister to developers, architects, planning consultants and neighbouring councillors to facilitated discussions at Melbourne Town Hall on the relevant issues of the day such as planning scheme amendments, sensitive precincts, major projects, upcoming applications, urban renewal, affordable housing, developer contributions and the like. If you can think of any other new initiatives the City of Melbourne should launch in 2015-16, come along next Tuesday and make your pitch, pocketing $20 for your efforts. *Stephen Mayne is a City of Melbourne councillor who is chair of the Finance and Governance committee and deputy chair of the Planning Committee.