Local Goverment Amalgamations: $5m sweetener not enough

THE $5 million NSW government sweetener on offer to Greater Taree City Council, Great Lakes Council and Gloucester Shire Council should two of them choose merge “is not enough” and any merger “will hurt services and the community”.
Nanjing Night Net

That is the view of Greater Taree City Council mayor Paul Hogan and it comes as council staff work to the June 30 deadline to submit a proposal to the NSW government on how it “intends to become fit for the future”.

Currently, Fit for the Future is described by the NSW government as a “blueprint for change” and “outlines what the State will do to cut red tape, invest in reform and help councils work smarter together”. A reduction in the number of councils is flagged by the NSW government as an outcome.

Council’s general manager, Ron Posselt says the “Fit for the Future process has recommended that Gloucester Shire Council merge with either Great Lakes Council or Greater Taree City Council.”

“Great Lakes and Gloucester engaged a consultant to model the merged council and have both concluded a merger is not viable at this stage,” Mr Posselt explained.

“As a more sustainable council, Great Lakes is a preferred partner for Gloucester over Greater Taree. Greater Taree will be submitting a response to Fit for the Future by 30 June as a stand alone council.

“We don’t have a position of forced amalgamation of councils although we note that the peak body for councils, LGNSW has a position of no forced amalgamations,” he added.

Last week in NSW Parliament, Independent member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich put a motion to the Legislative Assembly that exposed the possibility that local government councils may be forced to amalgamate.

The revelation came from the minister for local government, Paul Toole on May 14 during debate of the motion, “That this House opposes forced amalgamations of councils that are financially sustainable and have the support of their communities.”

Mr Toole stated the “government does not support the motion of the member for Sydney” and outlined the government’s agenda in relation to local government reform.

Speaking in the legislative assembly chamber, Mr Toole said ‘NSW has 152 councils. They range in size from six square kilometres to 53,000 kilometres. They range in population from 1200 to 300,000 people.”

In relation to regional communities, Mr Toole said they “…play a major role in supporting the State’s economy. They put food on our table and sustain major export industries. They also play a crucial role in education, retail, resources, manufacturing and defence. For NSW to have a strong future our regional communities must also be strong.”

He revealed that “councils are losing up to $1 million per day, which is not sustainable” and said “clearly, it is not an option to make no change. The government is providing, and will continue to provide councils and communities with support and funding to make the changes needed.”

Cr Hogan contends that “income is the biggest issue for council and it is deliberately ignored at a State government level.”

“As an elected representative you want to see what is best for your community, and amalgamation for me, will not improve anything. It will not help our community, it will not improve the financial problem of infrastructure – that will not go away.”

Cr Hogan believes the NSW government offer of $5 million to assist two councils to merge “is not enough”.

“There may be redundancies that have to be paid out, infrastructure changes, such as making a depot larger – the money is easily spent,” he said. “I have never actually been involved in an amalgamation, only viewed what happened in Queensland and discussed it with people who were involved, and the word was that the money was not enough. I can’t see it working.”

THE NSW government has “finally tipped its hand” with its decision to not support a motion in parliament against the forced amalgamations of local government councils, according to Local Government NSW.

President Keith Rhoades AFSM described the debate in the legislative assembly as “crunch time”.

“It really does suggest that the whole Fit for the Future process is simply tick-a-box, with the government firmly committed to diluting local democratic representation for purely ideological reasons,” Mr Rhoades said.

“It was instructive to see the arguments trotted out against the motion, which included claims that amalgamations would ‘drive down rates’, that ‘bigger is better’, and that forced amalgamation is ‘a dead-set non-issue’ for our communities.”

“It was also interesting how often speakers against the motion adopted a straw man argument, suggesting that the local government sector was opposed to any kind of reform.

“I can assure the community and the government this is not the case. Local government welcomes reform that genuinely improves outcomes for residents and ratepayers.

“What the sector does not support is amalgamations being forced on councils who are able to show they are financially sustainable, and whose communities have stated clearly that they wish to continue to have grass roots representation via stand alone councils.”

Mr Rhoades revealed that the parliamentarians who spoke against forced amalgamations during the debate included Guy Zangari (Fairfield, Labor), Jamie Parker (Balmain, Green), Greg Piper (Lake Macquarie, Independent), Jodie Harrison (Charlestown, Labor), and Jenny Leong (Newtown, Green). He added that government parliamentarians who spoke against the motion, supporting forced amalgamations, included Geoff Lee (Parramatta, Liberal), Gareth Ward (Kiama, Liberal), John Sidoti (Drummoyne, Liberal) and Ray Williams (Castle Hill, Liberal).

The member for Myall Lakes, Stephen Bromhead did not take part in the debate.

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