Amalgamation threat to dominate Local Government NSW conference

The Big Banana
Councils in NSW are gathering in Coffs Harbour to thrash out issues and challenges.

The divisive issue of local government amalgamations, which helped dispatch the Bligh government in Queensland, is fast shaping up as the lightning rod issue at next week’s annual conference for councils in NSW as town halls across the state bunker down to map out tactics and find better alternatives to forced mergers.

As many councils continue to reel from the Revitalising Local Government report that was released last month, as well as wrestling with the Independent Review Panel’s contentious recommendations, Mayors and elected representatives will this year be forced to contemplate emphatic advice from on high that amalgamate with one or more of their neighbours in the interests of financial sustainability.

It’s logical idea of you’re a council that’s strapped for cash; not so much if you’re in the black and facing the prospect of cutting services to prop up the neighbours.

The fear of future amalgamations is something the President of Local Government NSW, Keith Rhoades is only too aware will haunt the three-day conference.

“Local government reform will be by far the most talked about topic,” Mr Rhoades said.

Recent September workshops run by the Office of Local Government which aimed to help councils prepare their Fit for the Future applications have just concluded.

These applications, due for submission to NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole by June 2015, must demonstrate that a council is financially stable and well-governed and, crucially, operating at the correct ‘scale’ – a thinly-veiled allusion to the heavily-hinted at amalgamations.

Mr Rhoades said he felt some unease about the September workshops, which were attended by the general managers and mayors of NSW Councils and excluded other elected members like councillors.

“There is one thing in this which in my opinion is being overlooked and that is consultation with the community,” Mr Rhoades said.

“I just feel they’re a little bit too far on the back burner, even when the government is talking to mayors and general managers. Communities are being a little bit left out. You can’t turn your back or ignore them.”

Mr Rhoades said there were ‘mixed views’ on amalgamations across NSW councils, with some staunchly opposed to them and others keen to merge.

“Warren shire Council in the Western part of NSW is totally opposed to it while Fairfield want to go in with Liverpool,” Mr Rhoades said, citing other varying positions councils were taking.

Mr Rhoades said Mr Toole had assured him councils could apply to ‘stand alone’ and not necessarily merge with any other council to but added that these councils needed to prove they were Fit for the Future.

“If a council thinks it’s strong enough to put in a proposal to be Fit for the Future based on their current boundaries they’re entitled to do so, all I’m saying is they need to put it in early in case it’s rejected by the review panel, so they still have time to get another in based on the position of merging with a neighbouring council,” Mr Rhoades said.

He said another source of anxiety for local councils was that the composition of the review panel judging Fit for the Future applications remains unknown.

“I’ve asked the minister but he can’t tell me. There is some concern T-Corp might be on it and a lot of people think the T-Corp assessment of councils was flawed.”

The NSW Local Government Conference takes place in Coffs Harbour from Sunday 19 – Tuesday 21 October 2014.

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