WAFARMERS and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA) have joined a chorus of calls for greater transparency and accountability on Emergency Services Levy (ESL) disbursement and expenditure.
In submissions to an Economic Regulation Authority (ERA) review of the ESL, WAFarmers and the PGA joined other representative bodies, community groups and individuals calling for the ESL to be removed from direct Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) control and handed to a body not receiving ESL funds, to manage.
They also called for legislation and regulation changes to extend ESL funds usage from mainly “response” activity to include “prevention and preparedness” works, as well as “frontline” fire mitigation and suppression by an independent rural fire service.
The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades WA, Cascade-Scaddan Fire Review, Department of Lands, Gidgegannup Progress Association, State Emergency Services Volunteers Association (SESVA), The Bushfire Front, West Australian Local Government Association plus six regional shires and the City of Canning, and private submitters sought the same changes.
Their submissions to the review have been published on the ERA website.
Other submitters, such as the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association of WA (CPSU/CSA) – representing DFES and Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) staff – also supported ESL funds going to prevention and preparedness, greater transparency and removing the ESL from direct DFES control, but made no comment on a rural fire service.
WAFarmers, CPSU/CSA, SESVA and Frank Edwards – chairman of the State Emergency Management Committee (SEMC) in a personal submission expressing his own views – supported accountability for ESL being transferred to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM).
Created on December 1, the OEM comes under Emergency Services commissioner Wayne Gregson but is remote from the DFES operational structure and does not receive ESL funding.
It was previously known as the SEMC secretariat.
CPSU/CSA support for the OEM taking over the ESL was conditional on the State government making it an independent statutory body.
In its submission to the review, the OEM put itself forward as a “suitably qualified and experienced independent body” to manage the ESL.
It said it supported improved transparency and accountability, a more risk-assessed focus on prevention and preparedness for ESL expenditure and, if a rural fire service was created, for it to be funded by the ESL.
As previously reported in Farm Weekly, Mr Gregson is ultimately responsible for how much of the projected $339 million ESL funds raised this year will be retained by DFES to fund career and volunteer emergency services and how much will be provided as grants to other emergency service providers.
The ESL is collected for DFES in return for a fee, by local councils as a charge against property under one of five rating categories broadly determined by the level of emergency services available.
Category five covers most regional properties with a flat fee of $71 this year.
Category four covers properties in 90 regional towns with individual levy amounts determined by the gross rental value (GRV) assessment of the valuer-general.
Maximum payments in category four this year range from $130 for vacant land, hobby farms and houses to $73,000 for commercial and industrial properties, schools and churches.
Ratepayers in categories one-three pay higher ESL rates per GRV dollar and higher maximums on properties in Perth, regional city centres and on the periphery of the metropolitan area.
The ERA has previously established DFES used some ESL revenue to fund its career Fire and Rescue Service, Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service, Volunteer Fire and Emergency Service units and other “activities and overheads”.
DFES allocated ESL funds as grants to local councils to run bush fire brigades and to the SES and Volunteer Marine Rescue Service, but the ERA has said published information is not detailed enough for it to establish where all ESL revenue is spent.
WAFarmers argued the amount raised by the ESL did not need to grow.
“It just needs to be divided and distributed more effectively as there appears to be significant wastage within the framework,” its submission said.
It argued the system was response-based with councils applying for funds which appeared to flow to areas where there were most call-outs, rather than being allocated on a risk-based assessment.
“This does not ensure that funding is allocated where it is needed due to competitive grant processes, or simply a local government not applying,” WAFarmers said.
“This piece-meal approach has potential to leave particular communities under-resourced and vulnerable,” it said, and ignored a recent Productivity Commission review highlighting a saving of $11 in emergency management for every $1 spent on mitigation.
WAFarmers accused the State government of using the ESL to substitute for funding from consolidated revenue.
“WAFarmers believes that ESL funding should be distributed back to the community through services, equipment and training that will assist in protecting communities and assisting during times of need,” it said.
“Currently 51 per cent of ESL is used for employment expenses, this cannot continue.
“WAFarmers believes the State government is relinquishing its obligation to adequately fund the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.
“The ESL should not be used to pay departmental office staff and/or executive members.
“This is out of line with what the ESL was designed to fund, and is not in line with community expectations,” it said.
The PGA welcomed the review, saying it will “expose the nature, governance and uses of the ESL to a level of scrutiny that is long overdue”.
It said a majority of its members belonged to bush fire brigades and “represent a significant repository of operational knowledge and experience concerning fire management in rural and remote environments”.
The PGA pointed out ESL revenue had increased 78pc, from $181.4 million to $322.9m, from 2007-08 to the current financial year.
“During this period WA has experienced a number of significant bush fire events, such as Waroona, Esperance, Margaret River and Perth Hills, resulting in extensive damage to property, environment and tragically loss of human life.
“This clearly indicates that there is a decoupling between the basis for setting the ESL, its allocation and subsequent performance,” it said.
Some submissions called for a State risk assessment audit to establish areas of most need and for that to become a base line to determine priorities for ESL distribution.
Mr Edwards said SEMC, at the request of the OEM, was working on a State risk project “to determine and analyse the most significant risks across WA at the State, district and local level, their likelihood and consequence and treatment options to reduce risk”.
Some submissions pointed out anomalies such as disparity between risk and capability in areas considered the same for ESL purposes - such as Dumbleyung with a population of 223 and Busselton with a population of 36,285.
Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan pointed out Mr Gregson is responsible for administering activities related to six of the 27 hazards defined by the WA Emergency Management Regulations 2006.
Mr O’Callaghan suggested the ERA might consider extending ESL funds to cover all prescribed hazards.
In DFES’ submission Mr Gregson supported extending ESL to prevention and preparedness, but argued there was already sufficient transparency in relation to how funds were spent with information available on DFES and Treasury websites.
Mr Gregson also argued that if the ESL was to remain largely unchanged then DFES was the appropriate organisation to distribute it, but made no comment on a rural fire service and whether the ESL should fund one.