Sunday, July 09, 2000

Australia trip eye-opener

By Terry Flynn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT THOMAS — Fort Thomas city administrator Jeff Earlywine recently returned from three weeks in Australia as part of a city management exchange program. He talked to The Enquirer about his experiences, including similarities and differences in local government from Northern Kentucky to Australia.

        Question: Why did a Northern Kentucky city official spend time Down Under?

Answer: I was involved in the International City Management Exchange Program. I sent in an application and submitted a work objective last year and was fortunate enough to be selected to travel to Salisbury, in the Adelaide region of southern Australia.

        I spent most of the time with a colleague who is a local government official there. He will be coming to Fort Thomas for three weeks in September as the other half of the exchange program.

        Q: What did you learn about Australia?


        ... Australia is a very different country from the U.S. It has a population of about 18 million people, but over 90 percent of the people live in 1 percent of the area, mostly along the coast. There are vast areas of nothing but desert, bush and mountains with almost no water.

        Q: What are the similarities and differences in Australia's government?

        A: Well, the people I dealt with kept emphasizing that Australians don't pay taxes, they pay rates. I had a hard time telling one from the other, however....

        Perhaps the major difference I saw was that in some respects the state governments are almost the dominant level of government, rather than the national government. The state governments seem to have more effect on daily life in Australia that state governments do in the U.S.

        Cities have no constitutional authority. The state has most of the control of money and funding, which filters down to the cities. In effect, the states dictate how the cities should work.

        The national government is a federation of the state governments. There are eight state regions that form the national government.

        The local (city) governments tend to have larger elected bodies than we do here, and they use wards to a large degree in electing representatives. For example, Salisbury has a population of about 100,000 and has 16 council members plus a mayor. The council members each represent a different ward.

        Q: What surprised you most about how local governments operate in Australia?

        A: A big difference is that local governments have nothing to do with police and fire protection, which is controlled by the state. It was hard for me to understand exactly how it worked, because public safety is such a big part of life in all U.S. communities.

        One observation ... I'm not sure the average citizen

        in Australia is as involved in local government as we are here. For example, Salisbury does not have a planning and zoning commission. There are no public hearings on items like planning and zoning and budgets. They are decided by the councils and passed or denied without public comment. There are not as many opportunities for participation in local government there.

        Q: How is the local government financed? How do they pay the bills?

A. They have very few sources of revenue. The cities rely primarily on property tax. I had to wonder about tax equity and if there was a true balance. I never got a total answer as to whether the business community pays its fair share, or if property owners bear most of the tax burden.

        Australia just recently initiated a 10 percent goods and services tax, nationwide. I'll be interested to see how it works in the coming months, and how people in Australia react to it.

        The national tax rate is very high, but then they have a national medical care plan, and almost all the higher education is subsidized by the government.

        Q: Was there one single benefit of the Australian trip?

        A: Seeing how another country's government, at the local and national levels, operates really changes your thought process. I think it makes you take a good look at what works and what doesn't, and how you can approach your job.

        Q: Best and worst in Australia?

A: Kangaroo meat is really good, and they prepare it in a number of different ways in Australia. It's served at just about every restaurant....

        Gasoline is over $3 a gallon.


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