What was your career path to getting to where you are today?
I started in Local Government in 1984 and have worked at nine different Local Government entities over the 28 year period. In this time I worked mainly across rural and regional Council’s in Victoria before commencing with Knox City Council in 2005. My early roles in Local Government were working in the Rates Department and the Accounting sections before becoming the Finance Manager (CFO) at the Shire of Corio in 1990 and subsequently reaching Director level in 1994. I have then held this role across several Councils.
I have worked at the City of Greater Dandenong since 2008 as the Director of Corporate Services.
What are some of the challenges you face in your role
One of the critical challenges in Local Government is dealing with a political environment that essentially has a four-year window between elections – whilst at the same point trying to get long term commitment to a financial framework. There is nothing like an election year to throw a good Long Term Financial Plan into a degree of chaos!
Aligned to this is the need to present financial information in a way that can be readily understood and ‘owned’ by both the Councillors and the Executive staff.
Another challenge that is more particular to the City of Greater Dandenong is the ongoing redevelopment of this Council in terms of major infrastructure projects. In the past four years, Council has completed a $26M redevelopment project of the Dandenong Market, a $21M redevelopment of the Noble Park pool and has partnered with Places Victoria in the revitalisation of Central Dandenong. A cornerstone project of the revitalisation project will the be the construction of a $62M Regional Library and Civic Centre with construction due to commence in the coming month.
Beyond these projects, Council has longer term plans to refurbish its Oasis Aquatic Centre ($26M) and redevelop the Springvale Town Hall, Library and Civic Precinct ($32M).
The financial challenge is the development of a long term financial framework that phases these projects in such a way that they do not see Council exceed prudential borrowing limits, that debt redemption and servicing does not adversely impact on operational service levels, that Council can maintain an adequate commitment to renewing its existing assets and finally that stability is maintained with future rate increases at an affordable level.
Has your role changed or evolved during your time in the industry and how?
For me the role has certainly changed particularly with the move from smaller and regional Councils into the large Melbourne Councils. In the earlier roles it was easy to be both the leader the subject matter expert – but in terms of the large Melbourne based Councils, the level of expertise from Managers is significantly higher – and my role by nature is more leadership focussed.
As a Local Government industry – the focus on long term financial planning aligned to asset management data has never been greater with Councils very focussed on their financial sustainability. I think it would’ve been very strange in the 1990’s for anyone to even think about their asset renewal funding gap.
What’s one of the biggest challenges in the industry at the moment that affects CFOs and leaders in finance area?
A shared challenge across all Victorian municipalities at present is the burden represented by the Defined Benefits Superannuation Fund. This fund closed to new entrants in December 1993 but still has a significant amount of members and pensioners that have a legal entitlement to a ‘defined benefit’ irrespective of the investment performance of the superannuation fund – and unlike the various State and Commonwealth Superannuation funds – our scheme needs to be fully funded.
This has led to a number of “calls” over the past decade for Councils to top up the fund including the latest round where the fund has a shortfall of $450M.
The City of Greater Dandenong is required to fund an amount of $10.56M (inclusive of contributions tax) and this amount is quite comparable to all other metropolitan Councils in Melbourne. To deal with this funding challenge to meet a liability of this quantum – over and above the established long term financial framework – is extremely difficult.
What’s your advice for others starting out in their careers in finance?
My main advice to Finance staff in Local Government is for them to have a viewpoint and to think independently. Often early in careers, staff are very compliance focussed and audit and other directions are simply to be followed automatically without regard to whether they are logical or make sense. It is much easier to be a sheep in the middle of a large flock than to stand away separately and have a different view. I am very keen for my staff to ‘logic test’ their work, have a view and be prepared to challenge the status quo where there is a good argument to do so.