The Snowy Valleys Council was sent an initial $1 million in federal funds January 9 for “immediate financial support” as a bushfire affected community. Another $275,000 quickly followed.
The payments were designed to provide immediate assistance directly into the hands of local councils to rebuild roads and infrastructure, employ staff to help in recovery activities and hold events which bring the community together and bring tourists back to town, said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when the payments were first announced.
While there were some in the community calling for the $1.275 be spent on infrastructure projects across the Snowy Valleys LGA, the reality is that “the majority of that will be [spent on] staff and plant”, Snowy Valleys CEO Matt Hyde said Monday.
When the funds were received by the council, they were set aside in a dedicated fund for bushfire recovery, and staff costs and overtime associated with fighting the fires were billed to that fund.
“There a lot of chatter in the community that we’ve been building new infrastructure,” said Mr Hyde, explaining that the council will seek longer term funding for those more visible projects.
Instead, the money helped cover the cost of staff overtime during the fires, providing staff to assist the NSW Rural Fire Service in their offices, and getting boots (and machines) on the ground to repair local roads.
“Three hundred and fifty kilometres of road management is expensive,” said Mr Hyde.
The council’s approach to using the funds is consistent with the grant’s original purpose. The Prime Minister’s office explained: “Councils will be able to spend their $1 million payments on projects and activities that they deem essential for the recovery and renewal of their communities.”
Suggestions for how the funds could be spent included: Rebuilding damaged or destroyed council assets such as key local roads, bridges, and community facilities; employing additional local staff to take on specialist recovery or planning roles to help coordinate and plan the rebuilding effort; Hosting new public activities and events to bring communities together and attract visitors back to affected regions; and immediate maintenance and repairs to relief and evacuation centres.
In total, 42 bushfire-impacted councils received the $1 million payments across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland. The funds were drawn from $2 billion allocated to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency.
When asked how he would explain the overtime payments to fire-victims who are working early until late on their own recovery without collecting a wage, Mr Hyde pointed out that many council staffers also lost their own homes or property owned by family or friends.
“It’s not the staff and the community, our 300 staff are part of the community,” said Mr Hyde.
“It’s not like they’re sitting at home in their lounge chair unaffected by this.
“We have a legal obligation to pay our staff the same way any farmer out there who is employing someone to do their fencework has a legal obligation to pay them for their work.”
The Council staffers time has largely been dedicated to clearing and securing Snowy Valleys roads, dealing with drainage issues, fire-affected trees and debris.
Mr Hyde said the council continues to press state and federal leaders for longer-term investments to “stimulate and support” the local economy, especially when it comes to impacts on the SVC’s forestry industry. He said the governments right now are focused on the immediate benefits of promoting tourism and connected businesses, but the forestry is a major concern for SVC, saying that the Snowy Valleys’ economy was likely the hardest hit of any LGA in Australia, because of the effects to the forestry.