Flood labour bill could hit $25m

BEAN counters at council HQ look set to be balancing the books blindfolded as the Federal Government still hasn’t told them whether flood funding will pay for day labour.

This means a difference of between $15 million and $25m for Southern Downs Regional Council, which the ratepayers would be left to cough up should the Federal Government decide not to pay.

At yesterday’s general meeting council CEO Rod Ferguson told councillors the Local Government Association of Queensland and State Government had indicated a couple of months ago all labour – including overtime, contractors, extra staff and normal staff hours spent dealing with the flood disaster – would be covered in the federal disaster funding.

However, more recent whispers suggest this might not be the case.

Cr Jo McNally was unsatisfied by the response and angry at the run-around.

“Every meeting day, we get a different answer,” she said.

“What is the answer?”

Mr Ferguson said he simply didn’t know and the Federal Government would not yet put it into black and white.

Queensland was the only state in which day labour was covered, Mr Ferguson said.

However, in the floods out west earlier in 2010, the government said it was to stop.

“There’s been a lot of lobbying going on and we thought it would be covered,” Mr Ferguson said.

“However about a month ago we started hearing whispers from department staff that it might not be.”

Ironically, the disaster funding covers all overtime, extra employees and contract workers.

Had council kept its regular permanent staff on their normal duties and employed new people or contractors, the funding would have covered it, at an extra cost to the ratepayer.

“That’s if you can find enough contractors that would move to the area for two years,” Mr Ferguson said.

He said it now seemed unlikely council would know before the next federal budget in May, leaving a short space of time to balance the books.

“We just have to wait,” Mr Ferguson said.

“But it’s frustrating for everyone.

“We just want to tidy up once we know the full extent of things.”

Mayor Ron Bellingham said the budget was “upside down” and the timeframe was inappropriate.

“How long do we have to wait to get an answer?” he asked.

“We’d be chastised if we didn’t make a decision in an appropriate timeframe.

“Is anyone awake down there in Canberra?”

He said he would be “devastated” if the answer was no.

The discussion was brought up by Cr McNally who once again expressed her concern about council’s $5 million loan for capital works, which now doesn’t look likely to be spent as the capital works projects are put on hold during the flood recovery process.

Cr McNally’s main concern is mounting interest on the loan, which if kept, will be repaid over 20 years.

She stressed this loan should not be “eaten up” on operational costs.

“We just don’t do that,” Mr Ferguson said.

“It makes no sense to.”

He said if the loan was not needed, when the capital budget is decided, it would be a council decision whether or not to send it back.

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