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Council is almost certain to fritter away yet more scores of thousands of dollars tomorrow (Wednesday, March 21) when it votes on a recommendation to get on with the process of demolishing the old toilet block in Cygnet’s Loongana Park and building a new one on the same site.

Not much better can be expected of a council that, in the words of a candidate before last year’s local government elections, gambled away $4 million of ratepayers’ money on high-risk investments. In the years since that loss was revealed, none of those responsible has uttered a word of apology to ratepayers. So don’t expect any remorse for this latest bout of carefree splurging of public money. This time it’s relative chickenfeed: maybe a mere quarter of a million!

Despite a petition asking for the park’s 40-year-old toilet block to be retained and refurbished — signed by nearly 800 people (more than 500 of them valley residents, the rest visitors to Cygnet) — council appears resolutely determined that the old block must go and a huge plastic/timber compound-clad one be built in its place. It has already spent so much on professional services — sought before consulting the local community — that, even if it had second thoughts about its foolhardiness, it would be far too embarrassing for council to back off now.

One observer of the long-running public toilet saga noted: “The whole thing is a ridiculous waste of ratepayers’ money . . . but there will be no stopping them on this one. As we have seen, they are determined to ignore the wishes of the community.”

A new toilet block for the park was in the “public toilet strategy”, said Mayor Robert Armstrong a year or so ago — and, as far as he was concerned, that was that. Armstrong conveniently failed to mention, when he made that assertion, that a new toilet block for Loongana Park was only a “recommendation” in the strategy, not a firm commitment.

So now, along with the disaster that is Cygnet’s central car park (a blight on the view of the magnificent panorama of Catholic church buildings) and plans for an ill-conceived bus terminal/car park behind the Town Hall, the township’s main thoroughfare, Mary Street, is to be dominated by a huge (about 4.75 metres high) largely plastic-clad public convenience.

It’s not easy to resist resort to the vernacular when musing on council’s obsessive flushing away of huge amounts of money on its public toilet strategy.

Sure, we all like somewhere clean and tidy to sit or stand when we “need to go”. But to spend $200,000 (probably a lot more by the time of completion) on a structure that will replace a building that many Cygnet residents believe deserves preservation? If nothing else, it smacks of contempt for the community and council’s much-vaunted ‘Consultation and Communications Strategy’.

Public toilets, almost by definition, should be simple and utility, especially in small townships such as Cygnet, which, by the way, has three pubs (traditionally places that expect to service more than just imbibition). Monuments to bad taste they should not be.

At times, council’s profligacy has been matched only by its penchant for destructive behaviour. Relevant events of recent years, some of which contain elements of both of these failings, include:

— The secret drawing up of a ‘Huon Valley Water Scheme’, originally estimated at less than $20 million, on the promise of about $12 million in federal funds. This scheme, the cost of which is now approaching $40 million and will probably soar higher, is being constructed by Southern Water, which is owned by the state’s southern councils. SW certainly hasn’t got that kind of money to throw around in these straitened times — and the near-bankrupt State Government is unlikely to be able to help. So what next? It means, for the ratepayers and water-main users of southern Tasmania, potentially huge general and water-rate slugs to pay for a scheme that will serve not even 50% of valley residents.

The western side of the Huon might need a new water source, but the Cygnet side, with sensible management, certainly doesn’t need treated water piped all the way from the Huon well above Huonville. It would have made a lot more sense for the money to be spent on a decent-sized water tank for every household, leaving the heavens to do the rest. Instead, this covertly concocted scheme has all the ingredients of yet another huge financial public burden. It also will be interesting to see the long-term effects on the vegetation on the banks of a historic canal (through South Egg Island) along which the new water main is being (or has already been) laid.

— The Sale Street, Huonville, reconstruction is another case of questionable expenditure. Maybe there was a pothole here and there. But $1.8 million on a complete rebuild of what was a perfectly navigable road! Is there something in the wind that council hasn’t told us about? Don’t suppose it could be yet another subdivision to add to all the vacant residential blocks littering the municipality?

— The Esplanade, Huonville, which has had a motza spent on it, is looking more and more like Disneyland. Somehow, council just doesn’t have a clue about what a country town should look like if it is to attract the tourist trade. If you want multi-coloured kids’ metal/plastic playgrounds, half-finished barbecue shelters and shaved lawns, then The Esplanade is the place to enjoy your steak and snags. But if travellers are looking for that “country feeling”, for which the valley has long been famed, they can forget Huonville.

— All too often, council splashes out on professionals to come up with concept plans BEFORE consulting those sections of the community that are going to have to live with the consequences. Cygnet’s proposed Mary Street subdivision pocket park, the township’s main street car park and the Loongana Park toilet block replacement project are classic examples of council’s failure to connect with community.

In the cases of the pocket park and the toilet block, a member of Cygnet Township Committee, Pat Synge, offered to council well-thought-through concept plans as starting points for discussion. Would council entertain the idea of a local citizen devoting his time free of cost to help move a project along? Not a chance. Instead, it chose to throw more money at professionals to come up with concepts that reflect absolutely no community input.

Another sample of council incompetence manifested itself last year at a Cygnet Township (then Development) Committee meeting about signage for significant buildings. On that occasion, a professional consultant turned up with her idea of what council wanted while council was expecting a totally different service from her. What on earth had gone wrong with the council’s briefing of the consultant? The bill, presumably, still had to be paid.

— The Franklin football clubrooms were bulldozed soon after dawn in February 2009 (with police standing by lest any citizen dare try to impede the contractor), and their mid-1900s asbestos-polluted materials were carted off, blowing in the wind, to who knows where. (For some reason or another, the relevant authority failed to prosecute council for what appeared to be a clear breach of asbestos regulations.)

There was a strong feeling in Franklin that the clubrooms should have been preserved. The building was perfectly sound and could have made a fine home for, say, a museum. Today, on the waterfront site where the clubrooms once stood at the edge of the football oval, there is nothing other than a wooden bench table. A Franklin icon that could also have had a useful sideline as a period film set was lost to the town. Its destruction was a philistine act. 

— The Franklin Palais was saved only through a strong community groundswell of support for its refurbishment, which was subsequently carried out with a huge contribution of voluntary labour. The council wanted to wreck The Palais. Dover Old School is another survivor — again thanks to local resistance — of a demolition threat.

— The building of a footbridge from the Lymington Coast Road into Burtons Reserve, Cygnet, a few years back was another wrongheaded use of ratepayers’ money. The money would have been better spent on renovating the smaller bridge on the other side of the reserve, which now may be beyond repair. Construction of the bridge on the western side of the reserve opened up the wetlands bird sanctuary to a through traffic of unrestrained dogs. (Happily, prohibition of dogs in Burtons Reserve is now being stringently enforced.)

— And no one in the Huon Valley should ever be allowed to forget council’s loss of $4 million of their money by putting it into high-risk “collateralised debt obligations”, an exotic form of investment that no local government should ever have touched with the proverbial. Mayor Armstrong and General Manager Glenn Doyle’s predecessor Geoff Cockerill oversaw that debacle. Cockerill’s contract was not renewed less than a year after the investment catastrophe came to light in late 2008.

Some time after the revelation of the loss, a member of the public asked council if anyone had received commissions when that $4 million (a third of council’s total cash assets at the time) had been invested through the Commonwealth Bank. Deadpan, Cockerill responded by saying council had paid no commissions to anyone. It’s unlikely the questioner, even for a moment, had considered that council, as the investor, would have had to pay a commission to anyone. Cockerill’s reply was a very neat deflection of what was an intriguing inquiry.

Huon Valley Council is not only wasting money; it is also treating public opinion and the valley’s heritage values with disdain. The staff report that will be considered at Wednesday’s meeting is not without irony: “There is a risk that further delays in constructing a new toilet on this site cause (sic) community concern at the lack of progress.” Naturally, it does not acknowledge that the delays are largely a consequence of council’s inability to communicate with the people it is supposed to be serving.

The staff report reveals that $34,310 has already been spent on concept plans (drawn up without community involvement), “community consultation” (which never happened in any real sense of the expression), the preparation of the working drawings and the quantity surveyor’s report. This leaves only $115,690 of the originally budgeted $150,000 in the kitty. The report says a “competitive tender” amount to erect the building “could be in the vicinity of $178,000”. This suggests that at least $212,310 ($178,000 + $34,310) will have been spent by the time the toilet block is ready for baptism. (Council’s figure for refurbishment of the existing block is something over $100,000.)

All of these figures disregard the quantity surveyor’s estimate of $195,000 plus GST for the building cost alone! At this stage, council is talking about a “shortfall in the existing budget of approximately $62,310 to $79,310”, to be “funded from the 2012/13 asset replacement (buildings) budget”. So it looks as if it could be that valley ratepayers will end up paying as much as a quarter of a million dollars just to have one of their prettiest townships further disfigured. But not to worry, people caught short will at least have the compensatory privilege of savouring the pleasures of relieving themselves in a huge new, largely plastic-clad toilet block. All very Heritage indeed!

Many critics of local government will argue that, as far as the HVC is concerned, old is bad, new is good (except perhaps when considering the ‘new’ and ‘old’ of the forestry industry). Perhaps council’s judgement is blighted by its preoccupation with the need to create jobs, any kind of jobs, in a municipality that suffers serious unemployment.

Money is being wasted on projects that have little to do with long-term economic growth or creation of permanent work situations. Also missing is a caring for the preservation of aspects of the valley that provide those intangible fascinations that encourage visitors to return home and tell their friends, “Go visit the Huon, there’s nowhere else like it”. If council keeps performing the way it has been, the valley will continue to lose aspects of its magnetism as a place where visitors can still enjoy images redolent of a bygone Australia.

Council’s approach to the Loongana Park toilet facilities reflects a sad lack of sensitivity towards a large section of the Cygnet community. Such an attitude towards those who care about the ambience of their township is worrying. Is it a lack of caring by council about what the Cygnet community thinks? Contempt for the image of a township that attracts tourists in their thousands because of its delightful mix of heritage and attractively quaint buildings? Whatever may be the problem, since the amalgamation of valley councils nearly two decades ago, there is evidence aplenty that, in several ways, Cygnet has had (and continues to get) a less than fair go from its council.

Profligacy. Insensitivity. Contempt. Ineptitude. These are words that spring to mind when musing on the awfulness that is the Huon Valley Council, especially in its treatment of Cygnet.

Yet, with a valley population that, by and large, exhibits a tragic apathy when it comes to an interest in local government — and, therefore, by extension, their caring for the well-being of a democratic system that everyone should appreciate and protect — the council they have is probably just about what they deserve. — Bob Hawkins