During a two-day conference on the future of local government in NSW, held in Dubbo, general managers and mayors of the 152 councils called for changes to be made to the sector.
At Dubbo 2036 Local Government Minister Don Page said it is “clear” that if councils don not seek to improve and modernise local government, then there will be “communities that are `haves’ and `have-nots', in terms of the number and quality of services delivered to ratepayers.
During the conference, Mayor of Lismore, Jenny Dowell tweeted some of the discussion in one of the working groups, which included a throw away line about Sydney Councils amalgamating.
Cr Dowell later on told the Daily Telegraph that in her opinion inner-city councils weren not providing services to their communities on par with that of regional councils.
“When you compare a growing area like Lismore with 45,000 people to, say, North Sydney – they're not building new roads, they're not dealing with some of the regional issues like us and they've got a relatively static population,” Cr Dowell stated to the newspaper.
"My personal view is that amalgamations will come (and Sydney councils) will amalgamate. We cannot sustain all these LGAs and I think there is a shift saying Sydney has [too many types] of council."
Mayor of Leichhardt Municipal Council (an inner-city community), Rochelle Porteous told Government News this was her “personal opinion” and she was not “speaking on behalf of a group or organisation”.
Cr Porteous said 42 per cent of NSW councils agreed to the proposition of further rationalisation amalgamations, with the general understanding that it meant looking at rationalising some of the services so that there was better resource sharing between councils.
“[About] 58 per cent voted against this, concerned that maybe it meant more than resource sharing,” she said.
“The Division of Local Government kept bringing the issue of “amalgamations” back to the conference, but received no consensus or endorsement from the delegates.”
Cr Porteous said most of the discussion in the working groups did not see amalgamation of councils as something that would resolve problems of financial sustainability.
“In fact the prevalent option was that the financial difficulties and infrastructure gap facing Councils had been created by rate pegging on NSW Councils over the last 30 years,” she said.
“The universal call was to remove rate-pegging, stop cost-shifting and to review the tax system so that local government is acknowledged in tax revenue for the many essential services and facilities they provide.”
Cr Porteous said there would be no winners from amalgamating a council like Leichhardt and many losers.
“The greatest losers being the residents and local businesses who would lose effective representation at a local level,” she said.
“Leichhardt Council is in a strong financial situation and is close to closing its infrastructure gap following an emphasis on basic infrastructure renewal and maintenance.”
President of the Local Government Association, Councillor Keith Rhoades, reiterated to Government News, the LGSA’s opposition to forced amalgamation.
“The Associations have always been, and will continue to be, opposed to forced amalgamations of local councils,” he said.
“If councils wish to voluntarily discuss amalgamation then this is encouraged, and many people discussed this at Destination 2036, but at no time do we endorse third party pressure being placed on councils to amalgamate – this is a decision for ratepayers and residents.
“We will continue to stand strong on this issue, however we’ve been encouraging councils through our ‘Modernising Local Government’ initiative to look at ways they can become more efficient and build the local government of the future that their communities want and deserve.”
Cr Rhoades said at the Destination 2036 workshop held last week, many councils highlighted the excellent work being done by councils in partnership across NSW to deliver an ever expanding list of core services for their local communities.
“Many NSW councils work together to represent their region and share resources,” he said.
“Informal partnerships and strategic alliances are a viable method for achieving aims rather than a ‘quick fix’ for amalgamation.
“In today’s modern society, councils’ functions have evolved far beyond the outdated cliché of ‘roads, rates and rubbish’ – to offer hundreds of local services and facilities that help to build and maintain vibrant local communities.”
"Councils’ responsibilities have greatly expanded to cover areas like childcare to libraries, youth and aged services, environmental management and public safety,” he said.
North Sydney Mayor and Australia Local Government Association (ALGA) president, Genia McCaffery said as president of ALGA she has shown a lot of empathy with regional councils, and expected the same.
“As mayor one of the most densely populated areas we have a lot of complex issues. Lismore council has its own unique issues,” she said.
“I don’t believe amalgamation will solve any problems, some councils are huge and still have ongoing problems.
“Warringah council has been sacked twice and that’s a big council.”
Cr Porteous said the concern is always that we constantly wear the impacts of cost-shifting – particularly from state government to local government.
“If the State Government is serious about solution solving it needs to stop this cost-shifting,” she said.
“What are the realities of keeping an inner-city council sustainable, given budgetary constraints and urban population growth?
“Leichhardt Council is in a strong financial position and we are also constantly expanding our services, facilities and open spaces and upgrading our parks, playgrounds, libraries and sporting fields.”
Cr Porteous said Mr Page stated at the conference that “everything is on the table”.
“I sincerely hope that he means that because what councils really want to see is the state government taking the first steps towards improving local government financing by removing rate pegging, reviewing the taxation system and putting a stop to cost-shifting,” she said.
“Let’s get commitment to these three things first then we will know that the state government is serious about working in partnership with local government for real solutions.”