QPRC Ordinary Council meeting: Measures to deal with coronavirus

Wednesday night's Ordinary Council meeting may be the last held at the Bungendore Chambers for some time.

For the next six months, Mayor Tim Overall said, Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council will likely remotely hold meetings using audio-visual links such as Skype.

This is one of many changes council is making in response to the coronavirus lockdown. Facilities will close and services be modified for the next six months, while council elections scheduled for September have been deferred a year.

"It's a new method of operations for the council," Cr Overall said.

Already, four cases of coronavirus have been reported in the council area - one in Queanbeyan, three in Palerang. None required hospitalisation.

Virtual meetings, the mayor explained, will allow councils to function and make decisions on behalf of their local communities while reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Hitherto, councillors had to be physically present at council meetings. This week, the state government's Emergency Measures bill amended the Local Government Act to allow council to meet electronically.

On Wednesday evening, however, QPRC councillors sat separated by a four-metre space while grappling with the changes coronavirus would bring to the community.

The Q theatre, museums and galleries, visitor and community centres, the AXIS Youth Centre, Queanbeyan Indoor Sports Centre, aquatic facilities and pools have all closed. So have the depots; the animal pound; and buy-back facilities at waste transfer stations.

And the council-managed Riverside, Freebody, Seiffert, High and Whites clubrooms, and the Showground meeting rooms. Council will commission a report on potential refunds and rebates for lessees of council properties used for cafes and indoor sports, and pre-paid hirers of community halls.

The bushfire emergency centre at the Park Lane facility in Braidwood will continue. But no longer as a drop-in centre; customers must phone ahead to book. BlazeAid are working out of the Braidwood Showground and the Nerriga Recreation Facility to clean up after the bushfire; council will see how the volunteers can continue while complying with pandemic guidelines.

To minimise contact with staff, council have closed customer service desks in Queanbeyan, Bungendore and Braidwood. Instead, council will offer a live chat function on its website, as well as its regular telephone customer service. Applications and payments must now be lodged online, too.

Most services in fact will move online: Zoom meetings and development panels; youth services; development applications and meetings; and bushfire recovery meetings and outreach. Duty planning services will be available from the Queanbeyan office only.

And with most residents stuck at home, reading will become even more of a necessity. Council will expand its online, home, and mobile library services.

"These are quite drastic measures," Cr Overall said in a statement, "but we are in a very drastic situation, and need to ensure the health and safety of our customers and staff."

Essential services such as waste collection, water and sewage, and roadworks would still continue, the mayor reassured the public.

Permanent staff will not be stood down at this stage, council CEO Peter Tegart advised, but those working at closed facilities may be redeployed or need to find other work. Casual staff, unfortunately, will lose their jobs, but will receive payment of up to two weeks if rostered on.

These measures will continue indefinitely until the emergency ends. "This has been developed based on the directives and guidelines issued by the Australian government, the prime minister, and also the NSW government," the mayor explained.

"Until they place [a sunset clause], that's the situation. It seems to change day by day; it's being ramped up, obviously, and there's probably more to come, but that's where we sit at the current time."

Council will review the measures in September, and possibly withdraw them. "It could very well be that we need to start scaling back and looking at more of a reintegration and reactivation plan for our communities," Cr Schweikert said.

Council will also review its financial hardship policy. "There is going to be significant pressure on a large number of ratepayers affected by the virus, who have lost jobs, or who have tenants that can no longer afford rent," Cr Winchester said. "I'm not sure [the current policy] adequately addresses the problems we face."

Council encourages customers to call 1300 735 025 or use the website's live chat function between 8.30am and 4.30pm; or email council@qprc.nsw.gov.au.

Council lists all affected facilities, services and events at https://www.qprc.nsw.gov.au/COVID-19-Coronavirus.