OPINION – CAROL ALTMANN
[dropcap style=”color: #a02f2f;”] P [/dropcap]lans to introduce a new trader levy to raise $3 million over five years for Commerce Warrnambool have taken a dramatic twist.
A Facebook post by Commerce Warrnambool (CW) president Tony Herbert has revealed that CW is no longer seeking $600,000 a year from the trader levy, but $300,000 – with the remaining $300,000 to come straight from the Warrnambool City Council coffers.
This new idea is central to the negotiations between CW and the Warrnambool Traders Action Group – with Mayor Michael Neoh sitting in the middle – to try and reach a compromise, after the initial levy proposal sparked an angry and rolling protest.
It might look like an attempt at a compromise, but to me it sounds like policy on the run and former Labor leader Kevin Rudd is living proof of where that can lead: disaster.
Commerce Warrnambool no doubt has noble intentions in trying to raise funds to spend on promoting Warrnambool, but its proposals continue to raise more questions than they answer.
Shifting half of the cost burden from traders to general ratepayers does not change the need for a full and robust discussion on how the funds will be spent.
It also raises the question of whether this is the best use of $1.5 million of public funds. (Especially when the council is already spending close to $1 million a year on propping up Fun4Kids and Flagstaff Hill).
Indeed this new idea, if it is accepted, only widens the discussion – from traders to the general community – and we should now all be invited to have a say.
Bluestone Magazine is not alone in its concerns.
[dropcap style=”color: #a02f2f;”] A [/dropcap]s it so happens, not only did we stumble across Mr Herbert’s Facebook post today, but the council sent us a wad of documents in response to a Freedom of Information request we lodged in late May regarding the levy.
We are still working our way through these documents and will reveal more over time, but email correspondence between the council’s Director of City Growth, Bill Millard, and Commerce Warrnambool as recently as April this year indicates that both councillors and Council Chief Executive Officer Bruce Anson wanted to see much more detail on how the first $600,000 would be spent.
“I think one of the things you guys do need to work on is answering the question that Bruce asked Richard (Montgomery, from CW) ie. what is the $600k going to spent on in year one, remembering that council needs to sign on to the quantum and the KPIs,” Mr Millard wrote on March 6.
“Personally, I think you need to be definitive here. It will hurt your overall push if the councillors don’t know what the money will be spent on.”
You were not wrong there, Bill!
Mr Millard wrote another email dated April 1 – just weeks before the levy process was approved by the council – indicating councillors were still seeking critical details.
The email is too long to reproduce in full here, but it summarises the questions from councillors, including, again, the need for some firm details on how the money will be spent in the first year, how Commerce Warrnambool decided on the figure of $600,000 as an annual total, and what was the level of support for the levy among traders.
I would strongly argue that these questions still stand.
[dropcap style=”color: #a02f2f;”] I [/dropcap] spoke to Mr Herbert today and he said he was hopeful of reaching some middle ground, although he did not wish to go into any further detail because the negotiations were at a critical stage.
“Members of Commerce Warrnambool and Warrnambool Traders Action Group are working together with the council to try and get an outcome that is hopefully more suitable,” he said.
The trader action group has put forward a compromise of their own which, I understand, has already been knocked on the head by Commerce Warrnambool.
Their suggestion was to withdraw the levy proposal, have key members of the action group join the Commerce Warrnambool board and start from scratch as a united group.
This united group would review the business plan, look at how other towns run their Chambers of Commerce and come up with a fresh approach to council by November.
Perhaps that would provide the breathing space that this whole messy proposal so desperately needs.
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