STATE government ministers, Baw Baw staff and the Australian Services Union are unhappy with the reasons given for a planned major council restructure which could see 35 people made redundant.
First published in the 27 February edition of the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen. Get your copy today from retailers across Baw Baw.
The Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen broke the news of Baw Baw’s restructure online on Wednesday 18 February, having been supplied with a copy of the council’s draft Organisation Structure Review which was circulated among staff the day before.
Organisation flowcharts attached to The Weekly – the council’s weekly internal newsletter – detailed which staff members stood to be made redundant, re-tasked, redeployed or retired should the draft plan be adopted.
Thirty-five people had been marked as potential redundancies and a further 45 positions as outsourceable, while 26 new positions would be created and 11 positions modified.
Many of the staff marked as redundant have been employed by the organisation for many years.
Some staff said they found out they could lose their jobs from friends, not from the council executive.
The Community Services directorate, presently without a director after the resignation of previous head Shane Cagney, would also be disbanded to form a three-directorate structure: Community Assets, Corporate and Community Services, and Planning & Economic Development.
AN OPEN letter to Baw Baw staff, unsigned but assumed to be from council CEO Helen Anstis, said the savings measures in the restructure were in response to a “changing economic and political environment with increasing expectations from the community, without the price tag attached.”
The letter goes on to say there was “a real opportunity for us to review the organisation to take on these challenges,” especially in light of the imminent relocation of staff to a soon-to-be refurbished Drouin office.
Ms Anstis told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen the review began in December in the wake of a number of resignations.
“The structure started to be reviewed back in December,” she said.
“We’ve had a number of senior staff resign from the organisation.
“Every time there’s a resignation in the organisation, any proposal for a new employee comes to the executive team and we debate whether or not we need that employee, or do we need them somewhere else in the structure?
“With the number of vacant positions we had in the structure, a resignation of a director and another senior manager, the time was right to look at the structure overall, and that’s what we’ve done.
“What we’ve looked at is the position in the structure – how is the position best utilised to deliver the council plan? That’s what we’re looking at.”
Ms Anstis said redundancy could be triggered as a result of a 25 to 30 per cent change in a position description, and the restructure was based around refocusing on council goals.
“If you look at a range of positions in there and relate it to the council plan, you can see the nexus between the two.
“It’s now over to the staff to tell us how we can do it better.”
The response from staff had, according to Ms Anstis, been “mixed.”
“I spoke to the staff before I went and put the structure out,” she said.
“People have given me lots of ideas, really genuine ideas, on how we can do our business differently, including entrepreneurial ways in which we can grow external businesses to deliver better services to Gippsland.”
Ms Anstis also said changes to government funding and the introduction of rate capping were contributing factors in her push to find savings in staff numbers and pay.
“Rate capping is an influence on the decisions that we have to make,” Ms Anstis said.
“I received an email from the minister for local government back in January that said rate capping will be introduced from 1 July 2016, that we shouldn’t be putting up our rates beyond CPI and that they need to be affordable and sustainable for the community.”
“The December CPI was 1.7 per cent. Our proposed rate in our long-term financial plan is 3.9 per cent. That means a reduction, if it was to go to 1.7 per cent, or 2.2 per cent.”
“That equates to nearly $1 million. How do I find that money if I don’t have access to rates revenue? So while we’re still waiting for how the rate capping is going to work in Victoria, I’m going on an email I received from the minister dated 15 January.”
But that response has been met angrily by key stakeholders.
UNION AND GOVERNMENT DISPUTE REASONS
BOTH the union representing the Baw Baw staff, the Victorian and Tasmanian branch of the Australian Services Union, and the state government have issued angry responses to the rate capping explanation.
ASU branch secretary Richard Duffy told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen the rate capping excuse was “complete and utter rubbish.”
“They could definitely find money for a $3.2 million, probably $4 million, refurbishment of the new offices in Drouin. So I reckon if they could find that money, they’ve just set their priorities wrong.
“They’ve put their own comfort before their people.”
Local Government minister Natalie Hutchins and Regional Development minister Jaala Pulford have both warned councils against using rate capping as justification for cutting staff and services in the wake of the release of Baw Baw’s review.
Ms Hutchins, a Labor minister, also pointed the finger at the federal government for putting further financial pressure on councils through cutting off grant schemes.
“Our rate cap does not begin until 2016-17 – to try and blame this on rate capping is pre-emptive and irresponsible,” she said in a media release.
“If councils want to make cuts, they need to be honest with local residents about why they are doing so.
“If they want to point the finger, they should be pointing at Tony Abbott and his cuts to financial assistance grants.
“The state government has been consistently clear on this issue – if councils need to levy rates at higher than inflation, they will be asked to justify their spending.
“It is not a hard ask.”
Ms Hutchins said councils were able to seek exemptions from the cap.
The opposition has however used Baw Baw as a case study to fight the government on rate capping. Shadow Local Government minister David Davis, Liberal, told the Victorian Parliament on Tuesday the redundancies were to go as a direct result of the new government’s rate capping plan and the limit would have a negative effect when coupled with plans to roll back other potential council revenue streams.
Access to additional funding from the state government is something Ms Anstis said she would lobby for.
“I haven’t actually taken a trip into Melbourne yet to meet with the ministers because they’ve all just come back from their break after being sworn in and taking up their portfolios, [but] there used to be funding for local government in the former state government,” she said.
“We would hope that the Andrews government would look at retaining some of those, particularly rural funding opportunities.”
“Everywhere you turn there’s physical restraints on our budget. Decisions that are metro-centric do not apply in rural environments. Baw Baw’s the same size as 23 metropolitan councils – they might have 25 square kilometres of road to look after, I’ve got 1,800. And there’s only 44,000 people in Baw Baw, not a half million like in a metro council.
“We don’t have the same issues. We have big roads, big infrastructure, we’ve got a $22 million infrastructure gap that I’ve got to try to close, and there’s no money around to close that gap.”
UNION SLAMS PROCESS
Mr Duffy met with Baw Baw’s executive officers and over 100 “angry” staff members on Wednesday, saying afterwards the council had not satisfied the union in discussions.
“We met with Helen [Anstis] and the directors and the person responsible for HR and I think they were not productive,” he told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen.
“They again tried to show us the rationale behind the restructure, but we could not get any evidence out of them as to why they needed the restructure, all they could tell us was there were some financial problems.
“We didn’t know what they were, I said ‘what’s the business case for the restructure?’ and they couldn’t tell me. So it was a pretty unproductive meeting.”
Councillors were also in the firing line at the meeting with staff.
“They (the staff) were pretty angry,” Mr Duffy said.
“A lot of them live locally, and if the councillors don’t step in and stop this the staff are not going to be voting for any of the [them] who voted to set the rates so low and to support the restructure.
He said there had been no meetings with councillors yet.
“We started with the people who are supposed to be running the operation, now we’ll start with the people who employ the CEO.”
Mr Duffy said he didn’t think there was a need for the cuts, “but we haven’t really seen the business case for them yet so until I do see further information it’s hard for me to comment.”
He added the management of the review by the council had been “incompetent” and “badly handled, and it hasn’t treated people fairly or with much respect at all.”
The draft restructure showed several redundant positions would be replaced by a similar position with a lower wage. Mr Duffy said that was unfair.
“How would you like your job to be de-skilled, you had to go to work on $10,000 less each year?” he said.
“You’ve got a mortgage, you’ve got kids; I think the CEO doesn’t care about that stuff, she’s just given herself a $26,000 pay rise.”
Mr Duffy said the union would take the matter to Fair Work “if we don’t get any satisfaction from the council.”
Ms Anstis declined to comment on the cases of employees who could lose their positions not being told by the executive.
ALTHOUGH not officially involved with council staff employment considerations, councillors have commented on and defended the measures.
When asked if she was concerned about the possibility of Baw Baw losing experienced staff through the restructure, mayor Debbie Brown told the Warragul & Baw Baw Citizen the process was about “positions, not people.”
“The one thing that I would stress is it’s not about people, it’s about the positions, and hence the reason it’s in consultation phase at this stage,” Cr Brown said.
“I’m hoping the information that comes back in from staff, because that’s who we want it from, can come up with different things.”
Cr Brown said councillors had not asked the CEO to try to find savings in staff.
“What we ask of our CEO… is that this council have the best structure,” she said.
“Council will support her, and part of the reason we reappointed her for another five years [last fortnight] is we have full faith in our CEO for doing what is necessary.”
A general business motion moved by councillor Mikaela Power at Wednesday’s council meeting asked that a report on the review’s financial impact be prepared for councillors once it is finalised.
A family member of the author works for the Baw Baw Shire Council has been affected by the draft review.
27 FEBRUARY EDITION OUT NOW – Copies available from retailers across Baw Baw.
Get free email updates from the Baw Baw Citizen
Read more Baw Baw News