By BELINDA SCOTT
SEWAGE is not normally a sexy subject but the topic is arousing plenty of passion in Coffs Harbour this week.
The NSW Minister for Energy and Utilities, Frank Sartor, yesterday announced funding of $7.8 million for the second stage of the 10 year $170 million Coffs Harbour Sewerage Strategy.
But Coffs Harbour City Council says this is $15 million short of the amount the State Government committed itself to in 1997 and is threatening to look at legal options if the State Government does not honour its obligations. Coffs Harbour City Council mayor Cr Keith Rhoades said the council had entered a binding agreement with the State Government in which the State had promised to contribute $45 million, but Mr Sartor was now reneging on this agreement, leaving the council faced with the possibility that promised work would have to be deferred.
The State Government changed the guidelines for the Country Towns Water and Sewerage Supply Program last year, but Coffs Harbour City Council general manager Mark Ferguson said the council had never accepted that Coffs Harbour's Sewerage Strategy should be included in the new guidelines, because it was already a work in progress when they were introduced.
A spokesman for the Minister said yesterday although the new rules were not retrospective, any new projects or new stages of projects were funded under the new system, which ensured funding was spread more equitably across the State. The spokesperson said under the new rules large councils like Coffs Harbour received a 20 per cent subsidy and smaller councils were subsidised 50 per cent.
But Coffs Harbour sewerage engineer Geoff Newton said the subsidy provided to Coffs Harbour had been dropped from 40 per cent of costs to 12 per cent.
Sawtell is likely to bear the brunt of the funding shortfall if the council cannot convince the State Government to honour its agreement.
Construction of a reclaimed water pipeline from Coffs Harbour to Sawtell, the closure of the city's last shoreline ocean outfall at Murrays Beach, and the decommissioning of the Sawtell Sewage Treatment Works is the centrepiece of Stage II of the plan.
Sawtell board rider Aaron Bryant-Smith, the president of the Sawtell Association of Surfers Boardriders Club, said his 70 members would be 'stoked' if the Sawtell outfall was closed. "We have wanted it gone for a very long time," he said.
Mr Bryant-Smith said club members surfed regularly off Murrays Beach and he would be happy to take up a petition to support the council's plan and pressure the State Government.
Upgrading of the Coffs Harbour and Woolgoolga treatment plants is also included in planned Stage II work.
The National Party member for Coffs Harbour, Andrew Fraser, said when the Look at Me Now outfall was abandoned, the then Minister for Public Works, Michael Knight, had publicly promised Coffs Harbour would not be any worse off financially if it chose a re-use scheme, and last year Mr Sartor had promised that any councils with existing agreements would be fully funded.