- $1.3million in federal and state government relief funds - 75% of that already spent
- $2million-plus in economic development projects - ongoing expenditure
- $300,000 (so far) - the cost of waiving fees for council services and activities
- $605,000 donated to the Community Disaster Relief Fund - dollars committed so far $0
While the faces in our community clearly tell the story behind the traumatic events of the summer we'd all like to forget, there is also a huge economic impact - both immediate and still unfolding.
It may not be as compelling as the stories of personal resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity, or the strength of community spirit being shared by many sections of the Valley community.
But the movement of dollars and cents, both in the public eye and in the background, has just as important a story to tell.
We went to the Bega Valley Shire Council this week to discuss the financial implications of the bushfire relief efforts, how the community has come to the fore with donations, and how governments of all levels have contributed.
Our questions came on the back of a mayoral minute by Sharon Tapscott, asking that councillors be given increased access to council finances in the wake of "challenges and poor practices" in recent years - read: Council has a net operating fund deficit of some $14million. (The net consolidated fund is $8.9m in the red)
There was also an agenda item at council's April 8 meeting relating to the allocation of money received through the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangement.
On top of that, there was a campaign push in recent days by former mayor Kristy McBain, now Labor candidate for Eden-Monaro, targeting a perceived lack of response to the bushfires in the South East by the federal Liberal government.
So with that in mind, we posed a number of dollar-related queries to BVSC, and to their credit, a reasonably comprehensive response was forthcoming from BVSC General Manager Leanne Barnes.
Take a look:
What funding commitments have the state and federal governments made to BVSC. Have those funds been received, (or when are they are likely to be)? And to what projects or individual claims have those funds been allocated?
Council has received $1.3million from the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangement (DRFA) with the Commonwealth and NSW governments.
75% of those funds have been spent largely on:
- Infrastructure to support impacted communities - toilets, showers, washing machines etc ($870,000);
- Bushfire Recovery Centre ($100k);
- Support and training for Council staff to work in the recovery area ($100k);
- Blaze Aid camps support ($5k x3); and
- Council staffing for recovery and rebuilding.
In relation to the council staffing, reports indicate $350,000 is expected to be spent on staff in a dedicated recovery role, WHS resources and additional needs in the Planning department. However, the council indicated that a proportion of this carries over into the next financial year's figures.
Further details and costings are available here at Item 12.2.
"On top of those funds, Council, on behalf of the community has received bushfire funding for economic development activities, works at the Central Waste Facility, the clean up at Wandella and Kiah Halls, more caseworkers for the Bega Valley Recovery Support Service, stabilisation works in impacted coastal estuaries from Wallaga to Towamba to Wonboyn, and fee assistance for families accessing children's services," general manager Leanne Barnes said.
"These funds collectively are in excess of $2m, which has been allocated and is underway to be delivered.
"Council staff have moved quickly and responsively to the need they see in their community, we can all be very proud of the effort and service on display."
Empowering community to shape their own recovery is a key driver for our work.BVSC general manager Leanne Barnes
What consultation with the community went into allocating these funds, how was spending prioritised?
"Prior to COVID-19 council was actively engaged with the community through weekly, face to face, town hall style meetings across the shire. Those meetings and feedback through our caseworkers tied to the recovery support service informed Council's allocation of the funds. Our elected officials and staff also have deep and responsive connections within the community, which is always an advantage to our decision making processes.
"The new bathroom and laundry facilities at Wyndham sporting ground are a good example of how Council has responded to community need. These facilities met an urgent need to support members of the community who had lost their homes or suffered major damage in the fires.
"Funds have also been directed to tasks and operations council had to deploy during the heat of our response to the emergency and subsequent recovery. Those actions required swift and immediate steps to support our community.
"Restoring access to properties and clearing our road network is a good example of that.
"Council will continue to listen to and work with the community, led by their needs. Empowering community to shape their own recovery is a key driver for our work."
What funding commitments by BVSC have already been put in place and distributed from our own ratepayer revenue as distinct from state/federal grants?
"This emergency situation falls outside of, and on top of, Council's normal service load to the community. We have been able to sustain this work for a period of time through our own reserves, but to remain sustainable in terms of recovery and rebuild and business as usual operations, further assistance from the state and commonwealth governments is critical.
"Our community is grateful for these initial funds, but the burden of this experience will remain for a number of years. Indeed these funds don't cover the full impact on our budget and operations, we will be seeking further assistance for gaps in the rebuilding of lost infrastructure which are not covered by the support made available so far.
"From a Council perspective we have waived fees and costs for a whole range of services and activities in order to support the recovery process and assist people in financial hardship, those measures add up to around $300,000. It's an area that we will to be responsive to into the future as people move through the different stages of recovery.
"Critically and what is hard to appreciate is the coordination role Council tries to play in this space. The number of services and agencies looking to support our community at this time is welcome but overwhelming. Through our Recovery Support Service we are working to provide guidance and structure to these organisations and their work in our community.
"Our planning staff are working hard to prioritise bushfire-related works as well as their normal workload. Given the number of properties lost this is a weight that they will manage for some time to come, but they do so knowing the importance of home and of place to people.
"Very importantly Council has dedicated its Communications staff and activity to a very wide range of activities particularly reaching out daily with our community. The information they have provided has been key to providing comfort, support and has allowed people to start their recovery journey from a higher position than otherwise would have been the case."
What amount is currently in the Bega Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, and have projects already been assisted with funds from these donations?
From what council tells us, the simple answer to the latter is 'no'. More on the former a bit further down.
The Disaster Relief Fund was flagged in late 2019 - before the devastating summer bushfires. It was to be boosted by an allocation of profits from Band Together 2, but unfortunately that event didn't quite live up to the massive inaugural version and it's unclear whether any monies made it into the fund.
The Disaster Relief Fund is designed to assist and support the community in its recovery from natural disaster now and into the future. It is a perpetual fund, management is a collaboration between the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast and Council.
Council told us the fund currently has around $605,000 in deposits, which includes $37,000 raised by the Villers-Bretonneux community in France. That community has asked that their funds be spent in the Cobargo area.
Representatives of the relief fund's management committee will be meeting with members of the Cobargo community in the near future to discuss the allocation of those monies. The committee is using that opportunity to trial an efficient application, approval and delivery process for further grants from the fund across the bushfire impacted communities in the Bega Valley.
Further details and a more formal launch for the fund will follow once the Cobargo pilot has taken place. The committee anticipates the results of that work will be known in the coming weeks.
To what extent is the council looking after residents still in need of shelter, water, power and other basic needs four months after the fire disaster of January?
In response to this question, the council sent through a copy and paste of their response to our request for comment on Friday's lead story - Quaama area residents struggling to find shelter as the cold weather descends.
It doesn't speak to any dollar figures or money spent, nor the number of shire residents without shelter for that matter.
But it does have important information for anyone seeking support through the Bega Valley Recovery Support Service, which currently has more more than 1000 people/families registered.
Council said is also recruiting additional case managers "and hopes to have those positions filled shortly".
"The Service is currently completing a review of people's needs. We are responding in a manner that is sensitive to the needs of these people which includes privacy, dignity, respect and connection to land and community.
"One size doesn't fit all. That's why we've taken a case management approach. It's person to person and the solutions and approach are as unique as the people we are helping.
"With the permission of each person and within privacy guidelines, we have and will continue to share some information with other agencies as we all look to collaborate in supporting our community and meeting their needs.
"We encourage people to contact the Service if they are bushfire impacted and need support. Friends, family and community members can also contact the service on behalf of others."
People can reach the Bega Valley Recovery Support Service on 6499 2345 or email firstname.lastname@example.org,gov.au.
The community can also check Council's website and Facebook page for updated news and information and subscribe to Council's weekly recovery eNewsletter.