LAST week former Liberal MP and Wonthaggi mayor Alan Brown reproached Bass Coast Shire Council over “the crippling cost of vastly excessive rates” that had gone up 37 per cent in five years.
Rates are always a vexed issue. It made me wonder how Mr Brown fared when he was mayor of Wonthaggi, and whether we could make use of his expertise.
So I was a little disappointed when I checked the records to discover that between 1974 and 1978, when he was mayor, Wonthaggi rates rose twice as fast as they have risen under the current council.
In 1974-75 (when he became mayor), the rate rise was 20.7 per cent; in 1975-76 it was 15 per cent; in 1976-77 it was 7.7 per cent; and in 1977-78 it was 12.5 per cent, making a compound increase of 68 per cent over four years.
No doubt the rate increases were spent wisely. Still, it makes Bass Coast Shire Council’s recent rate rises look modest: 6.8 per cent in 2011-12, 6.2 per cent in 2012-13, 6.4 in 2013-14 and 6.0 per cent in 2014-15 for a compound increase of 28 per cent per cent over four years, less than half the increase recorded during Mr Brown’s term.
While mid-70s rates were rising steeply, the rise in special charges was even steeper. In 1974, the garbage charge increased 65 per cent, the sanitary charge 35 per cent and the charge for the sanitary pan service 80 per cent.
The South Gippsland Sentinel Times report of October 3, 1974 noted that the cost of these services had also increased by 80 per cent during the previous financial year.
The rate and service charge rises appear to have passed with no outcry from ratepayers. In fact the Sentinel Times commented in one edition that there was rarely anyone present in the gallery when the council met.
Of course they were different, and in many ways simpler, times. Their council certainly didn’t have the responsibilities of a modern council: no home care, no crossing supervisors, no restrictions on dogs on beaches and no planning department.
Which explains the unfortunate misunderstanding that occurred in 1977 when Wonthaggi Borough Council issued Mr Brown, the mayor, with a planning permit to build five flats on a block he owned in Graham Street, contrary to the shire’s own building regulations.
In 1979, after a critical report from the Ombudsman, the council debated whether to prosecute Mr Brown, who had just been elected the Liberal MP for Westernport. Instead, they blamed the borough engineer, Sam Coco, even though the council had told him to change a permit for four flats to allow five.
The Sentinel Times of May 22, 1979 reported: “When Mr Coco was challenged that he was the responsible officer and the expert, the engineer said he was appointed as the engineer and the building surveyor. ‘I have never been appointed planning officer by the council,’ he said.”
The fuss over the five flats, which dogged Mr Brown for many years, might help to explain his disappointment with nit-picking planners in general and the current council’s planning department in particular.
Looking through the newspaper records for 1974-78 at the Wonthaggi Historical Society, I found much to enjoy, not least photos of the dapper mayor, an ornament to `70s fashion, not of the hippie variety but for the young man going places.
Then there were the council discussions. Most were amiable. Alan Brown’s councillors were white Anglo blokes and they agreed on most things. The fiercest debate I came across was in February, 1976, and it was over what sort of trees the council should plant in the new Fincher Street reserve.
The Sentinel Times reported that the mayor offered to donate 30 oaks and elms. “Urging the council to support his plan, Cr Brown said the English trees were magnificent with their oaks, elms and birches which could be mixed with the willows.”
“Cr Robert Nally claimed the trees dropped their leaves. They should all be cut down and sent out of the country with the rabbits. 'If you ever put them in this borough I will follow them up with an axe.'
“Cr Rees, who supported Mr Brown, said the only place for a native tree was in the bush.”
Different times, and wonderful in retrospect.