Gunnedah Shire Council has agreed to significantly wind back proposed increases to its fees and charges schedule.

The compromise followed extensive community opposition to the planned increases for the 2023/24 financial year which many considered too high.

The fees related to the hire of community facilities such as the Gunnedah Showground complex, swimming pool, arts and cultural centre and sporting fields. It included major infrastructure such as the airport, saleyards and water supply but also extended to services such as animal control, the library, plant hire and development costs.

A draft proposal of the fees and charges fielded 15 formal submissions from user groups – almost all were opposed to the changes.

Many groups provided presentations to council at last week’s June ordinary meeting and outlined how the fee increase was expected to significantly compromise their organisation’s bottom line.

Under the planned changes for example, council had proposed hire of the showground arena to increase to $250 per day for non-licensee holders (those not in a formal licence agreement with council) for next financial year. 

Light Harness Club representative Annette Parris said she was initially quoted $35 per day for the showground hire but was shocked to see that price had ballooned to more than $200 under the proposal.

“We would like to use the showground more but we can’t if the fees are too high,” she said.

Namoi Horse Association’s Kath Wilkinson said its organisation had used the Gunnedah grounds for events since 1974 but any increase to fees would affect the viability of the club.

The association highlighted how the increased charges would be passed on to competitor entry fees and likely price out many from competing, leading to reduced tourism revenue from major equestrian events in Gunnedah.

Ms Wilkinson suggested a modest fee increase to about $50 would be easier for showground user groups to accommodate.

According to the Local Government Act, council may charge a fee for supply of services and products, providing information, providing a service in connection with the exercise of Gunnedah shire’s regulatory function such as applications, inspections and certificates, as well as allowing admission to buildings.

Council’s June business paper acknowledged the proposed increases were substantial but said it was necessary to offset financial pressures beyond council’s control such as “record-high inflation” and “extraordinary” increases to insurance and electricity.

“While it is recognised that the draft 2023/24 fees and charges represent a significant increase from current levels for non-licensee users, this must be balanced against the fact that the showground hire fees and charges have not increased, even by CPI, for more than 10 years and council is currently experiencing record-high inflation impacting costs,” the paper read.

“The previous fee charged of $35 per day for the showground arena would not cover the administration costs of this process.”

Comparative charges of showground facilities in neighbouring areas were provided by council’s business paper to demonstrate Gunnedah’s modest charges presently such as Currabubula and Willow Tree ($390 per day), Merriwa ($270) and Dubbo ($1268 for not-for-profit groups).

Lane reservation fees at the Gunnedah pool were also in the spotlight as they were expected to more than double from $3.35 to $7.20 per hour under the draft changes.

Swimming Gunnedah club president Aaron Smith said the proposed fee increase was “astonishing” and not in the interests of local youth in the community.

He pointed to council’s recently adopted operational plan, which in part, sought to build capacity of sporting groups to remain sustainable.

Councillors were told that although members contribute 90 per cent of the club’s income, it was still turning over a loss and it has “never been a more difficult time financially” for the organisation which is still recording top results at competitions locally and abroad.

“We should be investing in these kids that are putting Gunnedah on the map,” he said.

Swim mum Nichole Carlyon said her family already pays for pool entry, swim club fees and Swimming NSW fees for competitions. She said the proposed increase to lane fees was “not going to do anything good for the Gunnedah community”.

In response, Gunnedah council highlighted that an objective in the current operational plan is identifying opportunities to increase income and decrease operating costs of the pool complex.

“The ongoing costs to run the swimming pool complex are significant and revenue from fees and charges only partly contributes to the overall cost,” the business paper stated. “It is recognised that this facility will never be able to be run on a full cost recovery basis, however, an increase in fees and charges is necessary to avoid the pool complex becoming an increased burden on ratepayers.”

Council also provided comparative examples of lane hire fees in neighbouring regional centres which were used to determine Gunnedah’s proposed new fees.

Gunnedah Conservatorium director Rebecca Ryan also addressed the council meeting and said the draft fee structure for the arts and cultural precinct was confusing and looked to be driven by money instead of the community.

“The fees of the town hall and cultural precinct seem to be based on revenue generation whereas these spaces are an important element that allows community groups to provide cultural activities of value to the whole community,” she said.

Following the community presentations at last Wednesday’s council meeting, deputy mayor Rob Hooke proposed an amendment to the draft fee schedule.

The change suggested that the fees for specific categories – such as the pool, showground and cultural precinct – be increased by only seven per cent, in line with inflation, for the next financial year.

Cr Hooke hoped the change would absorb “some of the shock” from the proposed changes.

“If we keep fees reasonable, they’re likely to come back,” he said.

The change included a reduction of the showground arena non-licence holder fee from $250 to $50 – the same amount which was already the proposed amount for the licence holder. It also meant, however, groups which hire sites such as the Griffith Pavilion will still be charged the $250 rate. This was despite an unsuccessful attempt by councillor Kate McGrath to change to the amendment so that fees would be uniform across the showground facility.

Mayor Jamie Chaffey suggested changes to the fee structure would have a more “negative impact overall” as there was no telling what the implications would be to council’s budget. 

“We don’t know what the financial impact would be,” he said.

He also questioned the benefit of being a showground licensee if the hire fees were the same.

Councillor Murray O’Keefe unsuccessfully sought support from his colleagues to strike out changes to showground amendment altogether.

In reply, Cr Hooke said the draft fees and charges would be reviewed in the near future and this would give clubs and organisations “time to adjust” before further changes were made.

Councillor Juliana McArthur was uncomfortable that councillors were developing cost changes “on the run” and said it did not offer confidence to the community about council’s processes.

After almost three hours of community presentations and councillor debate about the motion, the Draft Fees and Charges 2023/24 was endorsed by council. It was subject to the amendment proposed by Cr Hooke which featured a conditional, seven per cent fee increase to some amenities.

In addition to the showground fee changes, the amendment also included a reduction in the lane hire fee for the 25m and 50m pools from the proposed $7.20 charge to $3.60.

The creative arts centre fee, including the back gallery, front gallery, meeting rooms, Mooki room and studio, would be decreased from $71.68 to $56.10.

Meanwhile, new half-day fee categories were created for the Civic Town Hall ($54) and Smithurst Theatre, as it was identified these were missing in the original draft proposal.

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