The future of Council’s community transport service is under threat if the state government doesn’t come through with more than $100,000 in additional funding.
Goulburn Mulwaree Council has worked closely with neighbouring councils for more than 20 years to provide some of the district’s neediest citizens with cheap transport.
Goulburn and District Community Transport is available to anybody who is living independently and is either elderly, frail, disabled or socially and geographically isolated. It services all of the surrounding towns and villages in the Upper Lachlan Shire and delivers its clients to everything from medical appointments in Canberra and Sydney through to social outings in town and even the shopping mall.
However, with cost blow outs forcing ratepayers to shell out between $30,000 and $50,000 a year to keep the service operational, Council says it simply isn’t economically viable anymore.
Community services manager Jim Styles told the Post it had been operating at a deficit of between $40,000 and $60,000 annually for the last two or three years.
The Vehicle Replacement Reserve has also been steadily declining. In order to keep the service viable Council needs to contribute between $40,000 and $50,000 a year into the fund. It currently only has $20,000, which isn’t enough to replace one car, let alone a bus.
Council receives $275,000 a year from Transport for NSW, $27,000 from NSW Health, and $15,000 from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, along with $50,000 in income. However, there are many overheads.
The service employs four staff members (two full-time and two part-time) and regularly utilises volunteers, who are reimbursed for the use of their vehicles.
Couple this with rising fuel prices, maintenance and vehicle refit and replacements, it starts to add up.
Mr Styles says while state government funding increases each year in line with inflation, operating costs are rising at a far more rapid rate.
“Other councils have indicated to us verbally that they are also having trouble funding their community transport services because of increases in costs, which are higher than CPI, and because income increases aren’t keeping up with it,” Mr Styles explained.
He said when there was a shortfall in funding, Council was forced to try to make up the difference by increasing the cost to clients. However, when it came to services such as this, increasing charges was a double edged sword.
“Each time you put up your fees you get fewer clients. When you increase costs on users they use it less because they can’t afford to pay more,” he explained.
There are currently more than 2500 people who use the service regularly and the majority of them are pensioners.
The service is also provided on a needs basis, not to generate profit, meaning people aren’t turned away if they can’t afford to pay.
“We have a suggested donation but if the client can’t afford it we still provide the service anyway,” Mr Styles said.
“Most of the time, 99 per cent of people make the donation but sometimes they just can’t afford it and that is usually when they need the service the most. If someone is in a situation where they need to ask the question, ‘Do I spend the last of my money on groceries or the bus’, they should be spending it on groceries and not having to worry about the stress of the bus.”
While Upper Lachlan Shire Council supports the service it does not have the resources to host it and if Goulburn Mulwaree doesn’t receive an extra $133,678.47 a year from the state government, it will have no choice but to ditch the operation.
A spokeswoman for Transport for NSW told the Post Council’s request was currently under consideration and was not able to confirm whether or not the additional funding would come through.
“Transport for NSW has been working with Goulburn Mulwaree Council over the past few years to try and help them maintain their client levels and financial sustainability by looking at structures, service delivery and financial management practices,” she said.
“Transport for NSW will ensure, no matter what the outcome, the local community will still receive the community transport services they rely on.
The NSW Government is contributing $6.8 million to community transport across the state, a boost of $2m this financial year.”
Mr Styles reassured clients that the service was still operational and told them not to let the situation concern them.
“At this stage we are going to continue to provide the service as usual until we hear further from the government,” he said.
“(For now) it is business as usual and if anything changes our clients will be the first to know about it.”