The Shire of Augusta-Margaret River is undertaking a review of some services as well as maintenance of public facilities as it struggles to address rising costs amid auditor concerns about unbalanced budgets. And new Shire president Paula Cristoffanini concedes “There are no easy answers.” Last month, the Times reported the Shire’s auditor found the ongoing failure to produce a balanced budget without rolling over unspent money risked the ability to cover operating costs. The review followed Times reports noting the Shire’s net budget position relied heavily on delayed capital works projects and external grant funding balances. The auditor said the Shire failed to meet the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries’ recommended metric for the past three years, and for annual finance reports since 2014-15. The Shire’s new corporate performance manager Mel Aylett, replacing long-term finance manager Andrew Ross who retired last year, noted many local governments in tourism hotspots reported similar adverse trends. “The question of balancing budgets highlights the broader challenge faced by the Shire,” she said, “being that of balancing the needs of the community, ratepayers, and local industry as well as its wider, non-ratepaying population including tourists and seasonal workers.” Ms Aylett also conceded staff costs were the biggest operational cost burden, even as the Shire’s latest workforce plan included an increase in six full-time-equivalent positions. “Any reduction in investment in staffing comes with the likely outcome of reducing the level of service offered to the community,” Ms Aylett said. Councillors in past years have largely shrugged off Times questions about balanced budgets, but Cr Cristoffanini said the Shire’s long-term financial performance was “of great importance”. “The relationship of income to expenditure is a central consideration in setting the budget,” she said. “The available levers include increasing rates, fees and charges; reduction of expenses; and maintaining/reducing assets that accrue depreciation.” Cr Cristoffanini said depreciation of assets was a major factor, such that all assets — including any facilities gifted by developers — were now under scrutiny. She listed a downturn in income during the pandemic, low interest rates on Shire savings, ratepayer service expectations, and minimising rates increases as key challenges. Off-setting those costs were an expected boom in fees and rates through growth in rateable properties — but costs and staff requirements would absorb much of that. “While we cannot guarantee perfection, we councillors are committed to doing our best for our community and we will continue to scrutinise these matters, and if necessary, make tough decisions,” she said. A service review of the expensive Margaret River Heart would be undertaken this year, while a “service improvement review program” was under way to ensure cost effectiveness and community needs. Meanwhile, asset sales were also considered because the Shire was “revisiting its policies around asset management” to find further efficiencies, Ms Aylett said.