CONSULTANTS’ fees have cost Newcastle ratepayers almost $5 million in the past year – enough money for the city council to employ more than 50 new permanent staff.
The council said the main reason for its $13,600-a-day consultancy bill was the need for specialist expertise and services that were not used on a regular basis.
But a detailed breakdown shows spending in several areas – such as marketing, public relations and tourism – where specialist positions are built into the civic workforce.
Council general manager Phil Pearce said he would keep looking at ways to improve how the council did business, but defended hiring consultants: ‘‘For the most part I believe the use of consultants is not only appropriate but also necessary. We don’t have the resources and in many cases the specialised skills to deliver the enormous amount of quality projects that we do.’’
Newcastle said its $4.96 million bill included several ‘‘significant one-off projects’’ requiring expert input such as the city flood plan, coastline public domain plans and Bar Beach cliff stabilisation.
Environmental consultants were the most expensive, costing the council $939,000 in the 12 months to March 31.
These included professionals contracted to work on the flood plan, cliff stabilisation and a development application for Summerhill tip.
Legal consulting fees cost more than $600,000 and most of this was put down to the Laman Street fig fiasco and NSW Land and Environment Court proceedings on the Elermore Vale mosque proposal.
The council said in a statement that ‘‘nearly all external legal expenditure in the past 12 months has been spent on specialist barristers and external experts’’, and that expanding its in-house legal team in recent years had saved ‘‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’’ in external bills.
The council spent more than half its $430,491 total marketing and communications outlay on the ‘‘Inspirations’’ program of events at the Civic Theatre despite having its own marketing and promotions staff.
It should be noted Inspirations was a ‘‘revenue-generating activity’’ and the agency fees included advertising placement, the statement said.
Money was also paid to consultants to develop ‘‘Brand Newcastle’’ and to a public relations agency to assist in the promotion of tourism.
Other projects requiring consultancy work included the art gallery and museum redevelopments, and several major planning initiatives.
‘‘This level of planning is unprecedented and vital for the revitalisation of our coast and city,’’ the council statement said.
The main reason consultants were used was because they ‘‘offered specialised expertise and services that are required relatively infrequently’’.
Other reasons included experience, new ideas, flexibility, and the ability for permanent staff to focus on the bigger picture.
‘‘Consultants can utilise more resources on a project, access more skills and typically complete tasks in shorter timeframes,’’ the statement said. ‘‘Generally, their services are acquired via a tendering process, which ensures there is a value-for-money component.’’
Meanwhile, three Livesites contractors have been told to find new work after Newcastle council passed the outdoor events program on to the Newcastle Now business association. One part-time and two full-time workers will have their contracts honoured to the end of June.
Tourism and economic development manager Simon Mcarthur said Newcastle Now was better suited to run the four-year old program.
‘‘We incubated Livesites and got it going but it’s time to move it on to longer term hosts,’’ he said.