Gladys Berejiklian’s defence of pork barrelling will hardly enthuse ratepayers in Batemans Bay, or taxpayers for that matter. The local government debacle over a leisure centre, which got the tick from Deputy Premier John Barilaro in dubious circumstances, is the quintessential object lesson in why governments should do their homework before they start throwing money around for political reasons. Elizabeth Minter reports.
Thanks to Coalition pork barrelling before the 2019 federal and NSW elections, the community of Batemans Bay is losing its 50-metre pool, which is being downgraded to a 25-metre indoor pool, local assets are being sold off, and ratepayers will paying through the nose for years to come for a sub-par facility. All because a project that didn’t have a solid business case was pork-barrelled, in defiance of grant conditions, to the tune of $51 million.
For decades the Batemans Bay community had wanted a performance space and an indoor heated 50-metre pool to complement its outdoor 50-metre pool. In 2016, when Eurobodalla Shire Council bought (with no community consultation) a site that used to house a bowling club next door to the existing pool, it appeared the Bay community would finally get their heated 50 metre pool. The long-awaited arts centre would be built on the bowling club site and the revamped leisure centre on the existing pool area.
The Batemans Bay Regional Aquatic, Arts and Leisure Centre (BBRAALC), a pet project of the Eurobodalla Shire Council, was announced in 2017. Just a thought bubble at the time, the project was turbo charged thanks to the taxpayer-funded largesse in 2019. Unfortunately, the project was not subject to any credible scrutiny.
And ever since it has been one financial disaster after another. Despite the $51 million in grants, Eurobodalla Shire Council now faces a $19 million (and growing) deficit to cover the cost of building the aquatic centre. The council is cutting services, selling off reserves and has just evicted dozens of community groups from the Batemans Bay Community Centre so it can lease out the facility to obtain rental income. The Community Centre has reportedly been earmarked as a site for a retail/residential development, even though Batemans Bay is awash with unused retail space.
And this is just to fund the construction of the centre, which is then projected to run at a loss for at least the first 10 years, creating an ongoing burden for Eurobodalla ratepayers.
In 2018 an independent team of experts assessed more than 150 applications for the Regional Cultural Fund grants and ranked the 116 successful projects in the order they should be funded.
Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information legislation revealed that the NSW Government largely ignored the experts’ advice, and all but $3 million was spent on projects in Coalition seats.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro (“my name is John Barilaro, call me Pork-Barilaro“) and then arts minister Don Harwin even signed off on cash for at least eight projects that were not recommended for funding. Some 56 projects were funded in 23 electorates, 20 of which were held by the Coalition.
The Bateman’s Bay Leisure Centre project was ranked No 72 by the independent assessors, while a Bega gallery project ranked No 1 in the funding priorities. The Leisure Centre was awarded $8 million, but the Bega project did not receive a cent.
Moreover, it appears the project was promised the $8 million three months before the relevant funding round had even opened. Round Two of the Regional Cultural Fund opened on July 1, 2018 and closed on September 21, 2018, yet the local paper The Bay Post reported on March 26, 2018, three months before Round Two opened, that Eurobodalla Shire Council would receive $8 million. The NSW Government is stumping up $26 million in total for the project.
The federal government chipped in $25 million via the Federal Regional Growth Fund, with the final funding announcement made just 10 days before the 2019 federal election was called.
No comprehensive business case
As a prerequisite of the funding, the project was required to submit a full business case. Yet a comprehensive business case has never been released. When the Eurobodalla Shire Council finally released the application, after blocking its release three times, it showed that the Council had submitted a consultant’s draft business case containing a clear rider that the consultant’s report should not be used for grant funding application.
The so-called “business case” projected operating cost over-runs. Yet the assessment criteria for the Regional Cultural Fund grant required evidence that an “appropriate analysis has been undertaken (i.e. a financial and/or economic appraisal), and the ongoing feasibility is shown to be viable“.
Eurobodalla Council continued to fight attempts by ratepayers to scrutinise the planning assumptions and costings of the project under “commercial confidentiality”, even after the tender for construction had been completed and the project was under way.
The Eurobodalla Council’s own Audit, Risk & Improvement Committee has never been provided with financial details of the project on the grounds of “commercial in confidence”.
Furthermore, Eurobodalla Council has not fulfilled its statutory project financial reporting obligations regarding the project to the Office of Local Government. The Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, holds the neighbouring electorate of South Coast.
An “evacuation centre” capability was later added to the Leisure Centre’s long list of functions. However, this “instant” evacuation centre is on flood-prone land, with limited access and egress according to experts. Eurobodalla Council has acknowledged that adding the evacuation functionality was driven by the need to obtain further funding from grants.
Then for reasons again not made public, the council decided not to include the bowling club site into the footprint of the leisure centre. This meant all the arts and aquatic facilities had to be squashed into half the space. So now the proposal only has a 25-metre pool, a much reduced auditorium (500 seats down to 350), no space for future expansion and the loss of the 50-metre outdoor pool. Furthermore, the smaller theatrette means it is not economic to have travelling productions, further reducing the capacity of the centre to pay its bills. And the “art gallery” that was originally included in the concept plan has been reduced to hanging space in the foyer.
And the federal government’s pork barrelling failed, with the federal electorate of Gilmore, which includes Bateman’s Bay, the only NSW seat that Labor won from the incumbent Morrison government in the May 2019 federal election.
As a local resident said:
“The next time you hear about pork barrelling and think ‘At least some communities will get the benefits from the funds,’ think again. In the long run, we all pay (sometimes twice, as both taxpayers and ratepayers).”
Michael West Media put a number of questions to the Eurobodalla Shire Council but it had not responded by the time of publication.