Interview: Mayor of Mackay Regional Council

The council wants to run local government on renewable power.

Every dawn, kangaroos gather on the shores of Cape Hillsborough - an “unusual” sight, as Greg Williamson - Mayor of Mackay Regional Council - puts it. “We believe that they go down there looking for little pebbles that they can lick to get some salt.” “If you’re very quiet and you don’t scare them away, you can get very close and personal to some kangaroos in the wild, and get some absolutely stunning pictures of sunrise over a beautiful beach”, says Williamson. It’s one of his favourite spots that he recommends tourists to visit. Mackay is described as the sugar capital of Australia, producing one third of the country’s cane sugar, relying also on industries like beef cattle, coal and tourism. GovInsider caught up with the Mayor to find out more about what else the council has in store for its residents, and his plans to create a city built on renewables. Green efforts The council prioritises sustainability as a key initiative. In water management, for instance, they are deploying “smart water meters” to 10,000 out of 51,000 homes. The service would provide real-time water consumption readings on an online platform, and will also “tell the council if there’s a leak in the system”, he explains. If that happens, “we can instantaneously advise via email or a telephone call” and residents can “address that straight away”, Williamson adds. Greg Williamson_4005 Citizens can also log on and compare water consumption levels with other residents in the neighbourhood. If it is high, “what can you do about this?”, he asks. “Council offers some advice”, for example, changing their washing machine to a front load that saves water. But the idea of real-time water readings serve a greater purpose - “the smart meter is actually prompting the rate payer to find the solution” to cut down water usage. Williamson’s team is also building a renewable energy system, possibly shifting all council properties to run on the alternative energy source. He aims to cut down the local government’s electricity bill by half, from over A$6 milion a year, and is keen on its opportunity as a revenue source to sell “cheaper electricity” in the region. Dog tags and intelligent parking Mackay’s dogs are also microchipped - this has been going on “for some time now”, the Mayor says. “If the dog is actually impounded, [then it] becomes very easy to interpret the microchip”, notifying owners through emails and texts with an automated system. “That’s just really a great leap forward from the old tags that used to hang around the dog’s collar” that may sometimes be misplaced, he says. The council is also exploring smart parking. Residents could use their smartphones to pay for parking tickets, “just as you can order an Uber cab and pay for it on your mobile phone”, Williamson says. This will be linked to a digital parking account, which is “easier to manage” than physical parking slips. Adapting to downturns [caption id="attachment_8154" align="alignright" width="850"]Mackay Kangaroos at Cape Hillsborough[/caption] But the economic outlook in Mackay has not been rosy. The global mining downturn has hit its local economy “significantly” hard. The industry is “not making any money out of the coal that they are exporting”, he admits. To drive the local economy, “we’ve elected to get strongly back into tourism”, says Williamson. They have since set up an “events attraction fund”, allocating millions of dollars to attract sporting, industry and commercial events. So far, the council has organised netball and cricket championships, and even had KISS, the American rock band over, he says. “We've funded large public events to get the public involved again, to get their morale up, and they've been very successful”. Mackay’s council has a A$300 million budget, and a large chunk of that - A$75 million - goes to building ground infrastructures. “That’s road, drains and sewers”, the Mayor says. Economic downturns may hamper spirits for residents, but it shouldn’t seal the fate of a region for long. It lies to local councils to spur change, pivot strategies, and drive the economy. Williamson is optimistic. “From dog registration to car parking, from water meters - it is all a very exciting technological future.”