FOI casts doubt on cost claims

CONFIDENTIAL advice given to Perth councillors ahead of a vote to close the Citiplace Child Care Centre has cast doubt on the official story it was costing about $1 million a year to run.

In March councillors held a confidential vote to close the centre in September and rent it out to make more money, on the grounds it was costing too much to run and there were now plenty of private childcare centres in the city. 

The city’s PR department provided the Voice with an emailed statement attributed to lord mayor Basil Zempilas saying: “The City of Perth has been subsiding the cost to run the centre an average $950,000 a year for the past seven years”. Other media outlets reported costs as high as $1.1m.

Parents whose kids attend the centre pooled money to pay for a freedom of information request and have now obtained the secret advice given by Perth staff to councillors ahead of the March 29 vote.

The document – the council agenda item – revealed they’ll only save $410,405 by ceasing childcare services, and the far larger figure came from rolling in $598,000 they’ll still have to pay once the childcare is gone, in the form of insurance, maintenance, and staff time allocations.

A big redundancy bill also cuts into savings. The centre has 18 staff, some of them who’ve worked there for 33 years since it opened. The redundancy payout could total up to $1.15m if they can’t be redeployed within the council.

The discrepancy in costs puts the centre closer to a sustainable model, and parents were hoping the council might consider closing the profit gap rather than shutting it down. The fees there haven’t risen for years, and many parents told the Voice they were unanimously happy to pay higher yearly fees to help keep the centre afloat because of its quality care and expert staff. 

One of the parents with a child at Citiplace, former Perth councillor Reece Harley, has written to the Perth councillors and CEO saying the actual cost of $410,405 “stands in stark contrast to the lord mayor’s public statements”.

He says bandying about the much larger figure is unfair on the centre’s workers – who’ll soon have to look for other jobs in the sector – since it sends the message they can’t run a child care centre efficiently.

“These misleading statements… reflect negatively on the professional reputation of the centre’s staff,” Mr Harley wrote.

Mr Harley is sceptical of the big amount allocated to running the centre.

“These internal charges are, quite clearly, not directly associated with the running of the centre.”

We queried the council on the discrepancy between the confidential financial statements and the public statements. 

The response said some of the remaining $598,000 could be reallocated to other areas of council, such as tech support and human resources, further reducing the childcare centre’s impact on the bottom line.

Mr Harley said parents were disappointed they had to pay for a Freedom of Information request to see the documents, as secrecy had been a big part of the problem with the whole process.

“We believe the document should have always been on the public record and available prior to the council meeting.

“Had it been, we would have been able to raise a number of questions prior to council’s decision.”

Of the 19-page agenda item, just one paragraph was redacted before being released to the parents – an estimate of how long it might take to get a new tenant and the likely commercial terms. 

by DAVID BELL

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