Property sell-off at Blue Mountains City Council to fund asbestos crisis under consideration

Could it be for sale?: The Wayzgoose Cafe's Mark Alchin and his daughter Rebecca outside the white ant infested weatherboard building where he has run a cafe for 15 years.
Could it be for sale?: The Wayzgoose Cafe's Mark Alchin and his daughter Rebecca outside the white ant infested weatherboard building where he has run a cafe for 15 years.

Blue Mountains council is under pressure to sell some of its properties to manage the ongoing costs associated with the asbestos crisis and to avoid passing the costs onto ratepayers.

Blue Mountains councillors have asked for a briefing with a report on council-owned properties that could be listed for sale in order to fund the ongoing costs associated with asbestos mishandling.

Council will have spent about $6 million by year’s end on managing the fallout from the asbestos clean-up – on remediation, investigation and implementing stronger safety systems – since the issue first arose in May last year. The legal bill could run to another million if it has to pay its own costs.

The first independent investigator’s report – the Tooma report – heard council tried to save between $40,000 and $50,000 on waste disposal fees from the soil removal at the Lawson stockpile site, but have now spent $600,000 remediating it.

“In the firing line” for the sell-off could be the controversial Waygoose cafe building at 172-174 Leura Mall, Greens councillor Kerry Brown said at last month’s council meeting. The building has had ongoing maintenance issues since another tenant (Circus) vacated their half of the building.The cafe owner Mark Alchin has said the building is in a state of disrepair and council has failed to respond to his repeated requests for maintenance.

Cr Brown said “the asbestos problems are just the tip of the maintenance-berg … the inspections of our properties have revealed other safety issues due to the age of council properties and inadequate maintenance over many years”.

“The pressure to sell is coming from these wider safety issues as well as the substantial asbestos costs.”

Other council-owned assets that may need to ultimately go under the hammer include Solitary Restaurant at Katoomba and the Wentworth Falls Pre-School, which were identified as having asbestos in their buildings in a council report leaked to the Gazette last year.

Council also owns commercial buildings on 152 Megalong Street (Renomme) in Leura, the Glenbrook Community Theatre, the Katoomba Falls Caravan Park, Family Support Service in Katoomba, the Mt Victoria Hall (Mt Vic Flicks), the Katoomba Neighbourhood Centre and the Springwood Arts Centre – also all named in the leaked Centium report as having asbestos concerns in 2017.

Other council owned properties which will be included in coming months in an inventory list for councillors to consider ultimately for sale includes 156 Megalong Street (Birches of Leura) and the shops near the old library in Katoomba – shops 1-13 on 81-83 Katoomba Street, Katoomba. The Katoomba RSL administrative services currently occupy one of those sites while their re-building process takes place. 

Mayor Mark Greenhill said “while the investigations have cleared the elected councillors in relation to the asbestos issues we must focus on fixing them”. 

“The reality is that this comes at a cost. Rather than hitting the ratepayer, we should look at what capital we have. I don’t normally like selling assets but it is vital we look sensibly at all options,” Cr Greenhill said.

Council has already had to put some projects on hold because of rising costs of overdue asbestos management – including the Hazelbrook car park makeover as part of the overall Hazelbrook masterplan. 

Cr Chris Van der Kley told the Hazelbrook Association in an email in February this year: “Council has to find over five million dollars to pay for all the work that WorkSafe has made us do now. This was not the only project that was put on hold, we are going to do a revised budget very shortly and I can assure you that we were trying to get it [the car park] back on as soon as possible”.

The Hazelbrook Association has asked council’s general manager to reconsider the delay.

Other projects being deferred by the funding of asbestos management for 2017/18 and to recommence in the 2018/19 asset works budget are the implementation of Lawson town centre car parking; Springwood town centre parks – upgrade of Manners Park and establishment of parklet and Warrimoo Oval carpark. 

A council spokeswoman said “council recognises that its management of asbestos and hazardous materials has required a significant increase in resourcing to meet the requirements of SafeWork NSW and the EPA regarding asbestos management and to address gaps in council’s past approach to the management of asbestos” .

“As a result, this will have an unexpected impact on the operational plan and budget, particularly the delivery of the asset works plan in 2017/18 and 2018/19. 

“But the safety and wellbeing of staff and the community is paramount.”

The spokeswoman confirmed councillors had resolved on March 27 to “receive a briefing with a report, to contain a list of properties council own, the uses, rent received, and the maintenance report on all properties, so as to get a realistic valuation for sale that could be gained, and regarding which council owned properties could be listed for sale in order to fund the necessary work regarding the safe management of asbestos in the Blue Mountains Local Government Area”.

She said it was “yet to be considered by the council [and] the need to identify and manage asbestos containing material is a challenge faced by councils across NSW”.

“Many council-owned facilities contain asbestos containing material, as do approximately one-third of all homes in Australia, because asbestos was commonly used in the past for various building purposes.” 

Councillors will also get a general maintenance report on all the council-owned properties as part of the briefing. 

Meanwhile council will also look into enlisting drones to control the dumping of asbestos and other waste. Councillors will be given a briefing in coming months in relation to purchasing a drone to help with the control of dumping and cleaning up dumping of illegal materials such as asbestos at the end of walking trails.