A $3m budget black hole has resulted in a Councillor calling for the Northern Beaches Council operated Hop, Skip and Jump bus service to be scrapped.
Forest Ward Councillor Jose Menano-Pires (main image) says the decision of the incoming NSW Labor Government to impose a $3m Emergency Services Levy on the Northern Beaches next financial year means ‘difficult decisions need to be taken’.
The Emergency Services Levy, formerly known as the Fire Service Levy, was a charge paid when people took out insurance. The former NSW Government changed the way the levy was collected to have it paid with Council rates, since only those who paid insurance previously contributed to the fund.
Cr Menano-Pires said the previous government had agreed to continue sharing the cost of the charge, but the incoming NSW Government had reneged on the deal, leaving the Northern Beaches with around a $3m unforeseen bill to pay.
“The Emergency Services Levy used to be on your insurance policy. What the government did was they took it away from insurance based on the fact that not everybody’s got insurance.
“They did that, which I agree with, but to throw that on the rates means our rates will go up several percent to cover the levy. To minimise the impact to our residents by increasing the rates, they provided a subsidy that would cover roughly about half of the levy.
“They [the incoming NSW Government] took the subsidy away after IPART had already decided on the rate increase for this year. The previous Liberal Government said they would continue the subsidy at least for another 12 months. So the rate increase approved [by IPART] does not include the full levy,” explained Cr Menano-Pires.
Newly elected Northern Beaches Mayor Sue Heins (image above) conceded the Emergency Services Levy was going to place an unforeseen strain on the Council budget and will be asking the NSW Government to reverse the decision.
“The increase in the Emergency Services Levy was imposed on all councils without warning and without any mechanism for councils to recover costs. While it is essential our emergency services sector is well-funded and supported, the funding model should be equitable, transparent and sustainable.
“Council wrote to the Premier, Treasurer and various ministers when we first became aware of this issue. We again urge them to reconsider the increase.
“In a Mayoral Minute at next week’s Council meeting, I will be recommending Council write again to the NSW Government, asking that they restore the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) subsidy, decouple the ESL from the rate peg and develop a fairer, more transparent and financially sustainable method of funding.
“The Mayoral Minute also recommends that Council write to IPART advising of the financial sustainability impacts of the ESL,” said Mayor Heins.
Looking down the barrel of a $3m budget black hole, Cr Menano-Pires (image above) said the time had come for ‘difficult decisions’, and claims that by axing the Council operated Hop, Skip and Jump bus service, around half the missing amount could be recovered.
The Hop, Skip and Jump bus service was originally operated by Stockland as part of the shopping centre development in 2006, but taken over by the former Manly Council. It services the suburbs of Manly, Fairlight, Balgowlah, Balgowlah Heights, Clontarf and Seaforth, with four routes Monday to Friday and three on weekends. All routes still lead to the Stockland Shopping Centre at Condamine Street, Balgowlah.
Under State Government rules, Council is not permitted to collect fares for the Hop, Skip and Jump bus service, so a gold coin donation is requested, but less than $10k per annum is typically raised on hundreds of thousands of passenger journeys.
Cr Menano-Pires has moved a Notice of Motion for debate at next Tuesday’s (23 May) meeting of Northern Beaches Council to cancel the bus service.
“This is a service / expenditure that should have been cancelled years ago. As we understand, the historical circumstances that justified the temporary nature of this service have long ago vanished.
“12 months have passed since I first introduced a Notice of Motion to cancel this service; another $750k (approx.) of residents’ money have been spent.
“It is an unsustainable and extremely expensive service ($10.99 per trip!) that benefits a very small minority of our population in a very limited geographical area.
“It is simply not fair to the ratepayers of Pittwater, Narrabeen, Curl Curl and Frenchs Forest Wards, to be asked to keep paying for a service enjoyed by a very small minority at such an exorbitant cost in Manly.
“Public transport is a State Government responsibility, and while we have criticised cost shifting from the State to Local Governments in the past, we should not take upon ourselves the burden of providing this service.
“We should also note that current public transport already covers over 80 percent of the geographic area serviced by this service. I am also informed that the remaining 20 percent is within an approximately 400m radius of a public transport bus stop,” said Cr Menano-Pires in his Notice of Motion to Council.
According to a recent presentation given to Councillors, included on page 227 of an attachment to this month’s Council papers, the immediate saving to the 2023/24 budget would be $1.4m if Council scrapped the Hop, Skip and Jump service entirely.
If retained, all four buses in the fleet, none of which are wheelchair accessible, are due for replacement in 2023/2024, with funds set aside for their replacement with ‘like for like’ buses at a purchase price of $150k — $160k per vehicle.
Wheelchair accessibility will add an additional $70k per bus and is unbudgeted. It could also result in a run-per-day reduction to factor in extra time for people to embark and disembark.
Based on figures buried in the Council papers, it appears another option has been put to Councillors, to shrink the footprint of the service to ‘maintain main route only (Manly clockwise)’ which would save next year’s budget $858k.
The future of the Hop, Skip and Jump bus service has been raised repeatedly since the Northern Beaches Council amalgamation, with Manly Ward Councillors defending the service. All three (Candy Bingham, Sarah Grattan, Georgia Ryburn) have once again leapt to the defence of the service, disputing Cr Menano-Pires cost calculations.
Former Deputy Mayor, Cr Candy Bingham (image above) said the three Manly Ward Councillors were on a unity ticket to save the Hop, Skip and Jump from being axed.
“Obviously the Manly Ward councillors will be looking at other options. With an average of 25 passengers per trip on the main route, this service is needed. Manly is a high density area and this service is essential. I will not be supporting the motion to have the full service cancelled,” said Cr Bingham.
Cr Sarah Grattan agreed, saying the justification to axe the service on cost/benefit grounds failed to account for vehicle depreciation already accounted for, and the fact COVID had reduced normal patronage, resulting in misleading costs per passenger journey over the last couple of years.
“His numbers aren’t right, he is double counting. The operating costs of the Hop, Skip and Jump are $776k, and that includes depreciation. I’ve had a look, and it’s closer to $4 a trip, and the main route is around $2.50 a trip.
“I crunched all the population density numbers of all the suburbs on the beaches, and ranked them by population density. Six of the top eight are suburbs this bus services in terms of population density. By taking this bus away it would just add to congestion on the roads and the parking issues.
“We are looking at who is using it and why. People are saying they can keep parents in their home and not put them into aged care because there’s a bus that can get them around. They don’t need a car to survive, they can stay in the community longer. It’s about providing accessibility and mobility for the most vulnerable in our community,” said Cr Grattan.
Cr Georgia Ryburn (image below, right) echoed the views of her fellow Manly Ward Councillors on cost calculations, saying the real cost per trip was in the range of $2.50-$4.00 and the cost of bus upgrades had been accounted for.
“It’s important that Council makes evidence-based decisions about all its services and considers the social, environmental and economic impacts when thinking about cutting services. The Hop, Skip and Jump bus is no different.
“The upgrade will provide wheelchair accessibility, making the service even more accessible for those with prams or unable to get up stairs. This is more than keeping cars off roads in the most highly dense area of the Northern Beaches. If this service is cut, we’re only going to see traffic problems and parking pressures increase,” said Cr Ryburn.
Member for Manly James Griffin (image above, left) has also weighed into the debate, saying offsets to the cost of the service were being overlooked.
“The Hop, Skip, and Jump bus did originally have a revenue stream for council that helped offset its overall cost. That came from the relationship with Stockland, but also through bus shelter advertising. Over time, that revenue has been absorbed and maybe spent elsewhere, which is understandable and fair enough.
“The economic activity generated in Manly would be so substantial that it’s completely fair it gets a service like this to look after residents and ratepayers down this end of the peninsula.
“If Councillors want to start having discussions about equity and the economics of how ratepayers funds are spent, then I think we should start discussing when the Whistler Street car park is going to be beautified.
“Why can’t we accelerate the Manly Town Hall rejuvenation? Why not peg some of the economic activity generated by Manly straight back into investments in Manly rather than it being spent up and down the Northern Beaches?” queried Mr Griffin.
The matter will be put to the next meeting of Council on Tuesday, 23 May, and is likely to generate plenty of debate. In advance of the meeting, Manly Ward Councillors are conducting a survey of views about the Hop, Skip and Jump service.
Images: Northern Beaches Advocate