For the eyes of Port Phillip Councillors only:

It's recent lack of any historical perspective on Luna Park has reminded me that I've been meaning to say something about Divercity for some time.  It's a 16 page, A4 full colour number which is left in Port Phillip letterboxes every month.  From my observation a very large number of them remain there!  Design and production is outsourced to Mediation Communications and an editor Greg Daley and two other writers from the Council are credited; it is assumed all of them work full time on Divercity.

Divercity's 16 pages provides for a column by the Mayor every month and space for the all the usual council and community notices.  A great deal of it is not about the business of the council at all but what council officers think will create community spirit and awareness, keep your weight down and reduce your power bill, all a bit nanny state perhaps but nothing wrong with that IF it can be afforded and is read and acted upon.

I'm doubtful about its utility but I reserve judgement until the facts are known.  My concern is not ideological but one of simple financial rectitude.  Because of the council's tight financial position the costs and the benefits of things like Divercity should be examined as a prelude to deciding whether they should be persisted with or whether they've just become an unthinking, expensive habit.  Accepting constantly increasing costs for the St Kilda Festival, Elwood flooding and escalating staff costs, and putting up the rates corres-pondingly every year is not the answer if we are to become more efficient and truly sustainable.

So are the Council officers prepared to divulge the following facts to the elected councillors and citizens?

a)   The total cost per annum of Divercity? 
This total cost should include the salaries of the council staff plus their overhead costs, the cost of design and production by Mediation Communications, and the cost of delivery by hand to how many letterboxes, plus any other relevant overheads.

b)  What level of readership is there? 
      This question may require a survey to try and find out.

If, as I suspect, this magazine is too expensive and has a low readership, then it should be scrapped and a cheaper and more effective way of communicating with residents should be found.  Perhaps a simple page or two could be sent out with the rates notices, or that old standby wall posters, which are very effective, should be adopted.

By extension this sort of critical analysis should be extended to a great number of other similar council activities.  People with considerable business experience often initiate discussions about the Council with me, and most of them have the same sense that too many council activities are fat and comfortable like Divercity, and would never survive in a more business-like environment. A cold eye is needed to either make these programs more economical or discontinue them.  

All these efforts will be needed if Council adopts the proposed target of a 15% reduction in rates in the next budget.  Not only would a rates cut be welcome to citizens feeling the pinch, the very act of re-examining all those budget items that get rolled out each year, with 5% added for inflation, would be a salutary exercise.  Reducing the rates would focus attention on all the areas that haven't been critically looked at for years; the Council can't remain a sheltered workshop if we are to be sustainable! 

The Council recently advertised their 'Free Leisure and Lifestyles Summer Program' which is available free for all residents.  I'm not sure what to think of this.  I presume it has the aim of countering an increasingly obese population and I presume that's something all ratepayers are willing to subsidise. But are they? Golf Clinics for Beginners, or Sailing for Beginners?  Let's not assume anything, let's check out what all these activities cost, how many officers are involved, and what are the participation and take-up levels? 

The next budget is being prepared right now, so it is important that the firm aim of a budget cut should be formally adopted by Council NOW and clearly communicated to the CEO and the Chief Finance Officer so that they instruct staff to take this 15% reduction into account in the preparation of the budget.  Otherwise the budget will be presented to councillors in a final form in April or May and then there won't be enough time and it will all be too difficult to amend.  If this happens there will be an understandable tendency to accept a rate rise and leave any economies until the following year.  We've seen it happen like this before with the cost blow out on the St Kilda Festival last year, and we appear to be stuck with an unsponsored Festival this year with the ratepayers paying for the extra cost again. 

So the other thing that the councillors should agree on NOW is to fix the 30th June 2013 as the absolute deadline for deciding that the 2014 St Kilda Festival in its present form will be discontinued if external funding is not firmly bespoke by that date; a deadline with no extensions! 

An impressive lot of councillors were elected last month and they have already stood up to the planning officers and ignored their recommendation over the proposed height of a residential tower.  Being a councillor is not easy, they have to learn to work together and make tough decisions in order to be able to provide all the other desirable things the community needs and balance the budget; it's why we elect them and honour them for their work.

Councillors be warned;concentrate on the money now and don't leave the critical budget decisions to the officers until it's too late!  Force the issue by reducing the rates by 15% now.

Don Gazzard
December 2012