TASMANIA’S longest-serving Mayor, Brighton Council’s Tony Foster has described as a dishonest misrepresentation, comments from Treasurer Peter Gutwein that local councils have sacrificed investment in our water and sewage infrastructure for a long time, in order to pay themselves dividends.
Mayor Foster said Treasurer Gutwein was very cunningly trying to blame local government for the financial challenges facing TasWater. “In doing so he is ignoring the fact that councils have already agreed to significant dividend cuts and that these same councils transferred millions of dollars in assets when the statewide water authority was established,” Cr Foster said.
“Having transferred these assets, built up and paid for by councils over many years – reservoirs, pipelines, reticulation systems etc – the councils are absolutely entitled to receive fair dividends, much like the State Government demands from its business enterprises like TT-Line, Hydro Tasmania, TasNetworks and the MAIB.
“But the Treasurer’s misleading comments say they should not receive this fair return on their assets to enable TasWater to fund required upgrades to water and sewerage infrastructure, particularly in Tasmania’s smaller, regional areas.”
Cr Foster says while councils, through TasWater, are already making a hefty contribution to the infrastructure upgrade, there is a strong argument that the State Government should also bear some of the cost burden.
“After all, it was the State Government that initiated the takeover of water and sewerage services from individual councils and legislated to ensure that the owner councils would have very little control over the managing corporation, TasWater.
“Historically, many regional areas such as King and Flinders Islands, and the small towns scattered throughout the north east and on the west coast, previously lacked suitable water and sewerage services as it literally would cost millions of dollars to provide the required infrastructure to such regional areas with such tiny populations. Small regional councils simply never had or would have the financial capacity to provide such services. This is no different to many regional parts of Australia.”
Cr Foster said the difference interstate was that state governments support the regional areas.
“In Tasmania, with Mr Gutwein in control of the purse strings, our State Government provides no assistance and simply expects the urban and larger councils to lose their established and deserved dividends and for their ratepayers to accept higher water charges to pay for the infrastructure upgrades.
“The need to improve water and sewerage infrastructure around Tasmania is well understood and justified and as occurs in other states, the cost of these major infrastructure upgrades must be supported by the State Government.
He said Minister Gutwein also had revealed his true agenda to rob Tasmania’s ratepayers to hide his failures as Local Government Minister and head off the State’s finances.
Speaking on local radio, Mr Gutwein said he wanted councils to use their financial reserves that actually belonged to their ratepayers, to fund the upgrading of the State’s water and sewerage infrastructure.
Cr Foster said local government recognised that water and sewerage infrastructure needed upgrading, particularly in smaller, regional areas, but this was happening over time.
“As well as failing to acknowledge this and the funding commitment of local government, Mr Gutwein cynically ignores the fact that in other states, and under previous Tasmanian governments, state governments contribute significantly to these upgrades,” Cr Foster said.
“But the Minister now expects ratepayers in urban areas, who have already contributed significantly to fund their own water and sewerage services, to pay even more to pick up what at least in part, should be his responsibility.
“Under Mr Gutwein, our State Government contributes nothing except criticism and abuse, and local government and the people working in the sector are rapidly losing confidence in this failed Minister.”
Cr Foster said Mr Gutwein was failing in his approach to local government and planning reform and in addressing the deficiencies in the Local Government Act. His management of the State’s finances appeared to be based more on smoke and mirrors and the hope that Tasmania will do well out of national GST collections.
“His attitude is highly counter-productive. Local Government wants to work with the State Government, but Mr Gutwein’s combative approach and often dishonest misrepresentation of the facts makes this extremely difficult.
“Here is a Minister who takes no responsibility, engages in cynical blame-shifting and achieves very little in the local government portfolio.
“Premier Will Hodgman would be well-advised to question his performance and consider appointing a Minister who is at least prepared to engage positively with the local government sector,” Mr Foster said.