Transparency and governance

Transparency is a core part of good governance. We offer the following feedback on several items on the agenda for the council meeting scheduled for Tuesday 14th February 2023, which are related to transparency and governance.

7.1 Burnley Golf Course

The officer report doesn’t offer enough context and information to justify the proposed expenditure of over $2 million. This is a failure of transparency.

The community consultation that council conducted in 2020, which concluded that the overarching preference of the community was to retain the golf course with a mix of Par 3 and Par 4 holes, was deficient because the community weren’t informed of how much it costs to operate the golf course, and weren’t offered an option to change the land use, e.g. back to a public park.

Council’s community engagement didn’t offer an option that excluded golf. Image credit: City of Yarra, attachment to council meeting on 16th February 2021.

Instead, the survey effectively asked golfers by how much they’d like their golf to be subsidised. Consider a hypothetical: if council suggested a new service, that every week every child in Yarra would be given a free ice cream, and asked people “do you like the idea”, they may well receive overwhelming support, especially from children. The result would be very different if the survey pointed out that the service would cost ratepayers a million dollars per year.

Burnley Golf Course costs a lot of money to run, a lot more than the income from course fees. Council doesn’t tell us how much more, because council doesn’t publish Activity Based Costings, i.e. summaries of income, expenditure and depreciation for each physical activity that it manages, such as netball, tennis, swimming and golf. 

The best information we have is that income from course fees is approximately $1 million dollars per year and that operating expenses are approximately $1 million dollars per year. Savings to offset depreciation and to pay for future capital works need to be on top of that – for example, the current buildings will eventually have to be renovated or rebuilt. Capital works are expensive, and we could conclude that a transparent accounting would show that golf needs an extra $1 million dollars per year.

If council conducted a survey asking “should we subsidise golf by $1 million each year, over and above what we earn from course fees” then:

  • the feedback from the community would have been very different;
  • many more non-golfers would have made a submission; and
  • many more people would have suggested a change in land use.

The officer report also highlights 40,000 visits per year, without providing relevant context. How many annual visits do we see at netball, or tennis? What is the subsidy per visit? Could we double or triple the number of annual visits, and expand the age rage of visitors, if the land use was changed, e.g. to a public park, or to a combination of netball courts, tennis courts, and soccer pitches?

Are 40,000 visits really that remarkable? Council’s walking and biking infrastructure is used by over 50,000 people each day, 365 days per year, resulting in over 18 million annual visits that provide low impact physical activity. People using council’s walking and biking infrastructure are exposed to hazards and risks that can be mitigated by capital works. Why should we spend 1% of the council budget on golf when 40,000 visits per year is so much lower than 18 million visits per year?

Residents and ratepayers should not be sold a dummy because council suffers from a status quo bias. We do not have to blindly stick with a decision (to convert a public park into a golf course) that was made in 1970. The identified risk issues could be mitigated in other ways, at far lower cost. For example, some options are that:

  • the three high-risk holes (1, 3 and 7) could be closed,
  • the whole course could be closed, or
  • the land use could be changed, e.g. back to a public park, a nature reserve, or fields for other types of sport.

The council budget is over $200 million per year. This single agenda item is considering an expenditure of $2 million, or 1% of council budget, and thus deserves detailed scrutiny. It is fair and reasonable to request more information. Good governance, and transparency in decision making, would be best served by deferring a decision on major works until after council has:

  • published Activity Based Costing for the golf course;
  • compared the subsidy per visit against other types of physical activity in Yarra, such as netball, tennis, swimming, walking or biking; and
  • offered the community a broader range of options to mitigate the identified risk, such as closing the high-risk holes, or changing back to a public park, or using the land for other types of physical activity.

7.3 Governance Report

The officer report claims to provide “a single reporting platform for a range of statutory compliance, transparency and governance related matters”. We welcome the consolidation of reporting, to make a variety of governance issues easier to follow. However, the officer report fails to offer insight or transparency on the governance issues which are of most interest to the community, such as:

7.4 Fitzroy Town Hall.

The officer report doesn’t offer enough context and information to justify the proposed expenditure of over $2 million. This is a failure of transparency.

The City of Yarra has an Asset Management Policy and an Asset Plan. In our view, the proposed expenditure of $2.4 million doesn’t align with either. Considering the Asset Management Policy, the expenditure doesn’t align with: 

  • Principle 3 – Asset management will support the delivery of the Council Plan; or
  • Principle 8 – Renewal of existing assets will be based on service need;

because it diverts funds toward what looks like a black hole. There is no context or information such as:

  • How much has council spent on Fitzroy Town Hall over the last 20 years, including capital works and operating costs (including staffing).
  • How much is council projected to spend on Fitzroy Town Hall in the next 20 years, including expected capital works or renovations?

Council’s Asset Plan states that it will provide information on asset value and performance. However, the officer report fails to describe the value and performance of the Fitzroy Town Hall.

Yarra has several underutilised buildings that continue to attract lifecycle costs. We will need to better rationalise our building stock numbers to justify our lifecycle expenditure if we wish to remain financially sustainable in the longer term.

City of Yarra Asset Plan

Is this quote referring to the Fitzroy Town Hall?

The officer report paragraph 19 states that the Fitzroy Town Hall supports the local economy through attracting visitor to the municipality. What is it costing us to deliver this support? 

The officer report doesn’t present any other options for councillors to consider, which is a failure of management.

If the crown owns the land, and council owns the building, and the building is of state significance, then one option could be to sell the building to the crown, enabling the crown to take it over as a package of building and land. This would result in the cost burden of maintaining the heritage structure being shared among the whole state, not just the ratepayers of Yarra. The state could then call for expressions of interest to manage or redevelop the town hall. For example, it could be a state library, or state museum, or developed for other uses in a manner that complies with heritage requirements.

A proposal to spend $2.4 million is not a small issue, it’s 1% of the council budget, and deserves scrutiny, especially when it diverts money away from other areas of the Council Plan. We ask, please, that whenever council proposes to spend over 1% of the budget in a single action, council commits to align with the Public Transparency Policy, the Asset Management Policy, and the Asset Plan, by:

  • stating who owns the land and the asset
  • describing the value and performance of the asset
  • summarising how much has been spent on it in the past
  • estimating how much is likely to be spent in the future
  • clarifying whether it is an ongoing revenue source or a money pit
  • assessing whether council actually needs the asset
  • presenting other options for managing the asset

Published 13th February 2023