Meet the manager of Council’s operational arm, general manager Ken Gainger.
While elected councillors make policy, the implementation – or operation – is undertaken by 270 full-time public service employees, all overseen by Mr Gainger. And that makes Council perhaps the shire’s largest employer.
We met last week just after he emerged from a meeting with the Grants Commission. Byron Shire is currently significantly disadvantaged by the formula used to distribute federal financial assistance grants to NSW councils, and he’s hopeful this will change after a review is completed as part of a local-government reform program.
He says of the meeting, ‘We exchanged presentations and Council representatives explained how disadvantaged Byron Shire is compared to the state’s other 151 councils.’
‘It’s not just the 1.5 million annual visitors that come here, but also the landslips, the cyclones and beach erosions which contribute to high infrastructure maintenance costs.’
Council’s funding allocation from the state is calculated from many factors. He says, ‘It’s not just the ratepayer base and property values, but infrastructure such as the length of roads and bridges and a range of disability factors.’
$1m surplus target met
He’s held the top job for just eight months, and when he took the reins, Council’s financial situation was looking bleak.
‘We were told by the Treasury Corporation, on behalf of the Department of Local Government, that we had no further capacity to borrow funds until we improved our capacity to meet loan redemption obligations.’
And while it will take a long time to get on top of overall debt, he says financial stability has already been achieved after restructuring and efficiency measures.
Remarkably a target of a $1 million accumulated surplus has already been reached, well before expectations.
While negotiations with staff are ongoing, he says, ‘the top level of executive management has been pared back to three directors and an executive position.’
Other measures that could help Council get into the black include selling and better managing some of its property.
He says around 15 years ago, Ballina Council helped to turn around its finances by developing and managing the property it owned. So what plans has he got for Byron?
Apart from subdividing and selling the contentious Ocean Shores Roundhouse, he says a factory-sized parcel in the Byron Arts & Industry Estate will soon be up for sale. ‘Initially we are looking at the low- hanging fruit,’ he says.
And while the former Telstra land next to the Mullumbimby Woolworths is currently being rezoned and prepared for sale, he says that due to site contamination, ‘I would expect to see a loss after the sale.’
But he’s hopeful that the old Byron Bay Public Library building could eventually be transformed into a successful commercial hub. Located in the CBD, he says in future years it could provide good returns if appropriately developed.
As for Council meetings, he says transparency has improved after confidential session rules were refined.
‘A council is required to go into confidential session where a price comparison between tenderers is discussed, for example. But that also meant other discussions were not heard in public. Councillors now only enter confidential sessions when absolutely necessary.’
40 years’ experience in local govt
The Bangalow resident and former Lismore City Council GM says after years working away, he feels that this region is his home. Last week he addressed the Bangalow Lions Club, and will be guest speaker at the Byron business chamber annual general meeting on November 7.
‘I’ve been in local government for 40 years, and this council is one of the best I’ve worked with,’ he enthused.
‘Despite some differing political opinions, everyone works very well together.’
He also says he has seen a huge improvement in staff morale, and, along with councillors, has encouraged creative and innovative suggestions from staff. ‘They are certainly less “risk averse” these days,’ he says.
You can see councillors and staff in action this Thursday at the Mullumbimby chambers from 9am. This week’s agenda is available at www.byron.nsw.gov.au.