Council mergers: show us the numbers demands NSW Labor

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NSW Councils and the Labor Opposition reckon Premier Mike Baird’s merger plans don’t add up.

Shadow NSW Local Government Minister Sophie Cotsis has called upon the NSW government to release the cost-benefit analysis underpinning its concerted push for council mergers.

Ms Cotsis told Government News that the state government had provided no economic modelling on the costs associated with councils merging or proving the potential benefits of them doing so.

The motion to flush out the crucial numbers also challenges the NSW government to attend community meetings and explain to ratepayers why council mergers ought take place.

However to get up, the bill requires the support of minor parties.

The Independent Local Government Review Panel recommended earlier this year that 105 of NSW’s 152 councils merge and that eight councils in the state’s far west should form a Far West organisation.

This year’s LGNSW Conference at Coffs Harbour, which finished on Tuesday, was dominated by a palpable anxiety around council mergers and the NSW government’s new Fit for the Future (F4F) package.

Conference delegates were left frustrated after NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole’s 20-minute speech dragged into 45 minutes, leaving time for few questions afterwards.

Ms Cotsis said that many questions had been left unanswered about amalgamations, despite NSW Premier Mike Baird and Mr Toole both speaking at the conference.

“It was a shame that the minister couldn’t have an open forum with more questions. He only took a couple of questions from the floor,” Ms Cotsis said.

“Councils are worried about the lack of detail. If they don’t get the detail explained it’s very hard for them to go and explain it to their communities.”

NSW Premier Mike Baird has so far refused to rule out forced mergers and councils are left dealing mainly in question marks, principally:  if a council is deemed unfit for the future by the panel (membership of which remains unknown) will they be forced to merge with their neighbours?

There is also uncertainty around the F4F applications themselves, which councils still don’t have all the information about but has been promised by the government by the end of this month.

Meanwhile some councils are unsure about whether to submit a stand-alone F4F application, in case they are penalised and declared unfit for the future for not having plans to merge while others, who are financially stable, are loathe to merge with a neighbouring economic basket case.

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) itself has highlighted the dangers of two financially strapped councils merging in its ‘Review of criteria for fit for the future’.

“Merging a number of financially unsustainable councils will do little more than produce a larger financially unsustainable council,” says the September 2014 IPART report.

“This new larger council will need to take additional action to become financially sustainable. IPART acknowledges that this will take time.”

Conference speeches did nothing to answer the questions that are keeping mayors, councillors and general managers awake at night and there was not a government minister in sight when amalgamations were fiercely debated by those gathered.

Local Government NSW President Keith Rhoades said councils were troubled the State government had not given assurances that there would be no forced mergers. He was also considered that the F4F program was not on track.

“The (F4F) resources are due out at the end of this month but the clock is ticking and essential consultation on them to make sure they work for councils and their communities has not even started,” Mr Rhoades said.

Another predictably hot topic was the NSW Government’s failure to index link Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) to councils.

Ms Cotsis has started a community petition to put pressure on Mr Baird to index link the FAGs, which are the lifeblood of local councils.

MS Cotsis says not linking FAGs to inflation represents a $288 million cut to councils, who are already struggling with infrastructure backlogs and cost shifting.

“I’m calling on the Premier to fight harder and stronger for NSW councils. The $288 million is a huge chunk from council budgets,” Ms Cotsis said.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom at Coffs Harbour. Ku-ring-gai and Bankstown Councils shared the AR Bluett Memorial Award in the city and metropolitan division – the first time in 25 years the award has been shared.

Ku-ring-gai Council, which promotes itself as ‘Sydney’s green heart’ won for its emphasis on sustainability, which informed its financial, environmental, social planning and governance.

The council’s achievements included a new $17 million fitness centre, developing wetlands, a major upgrade of Gordon Library, upgrades to parks and playgrounds, bio-banking, a large volunteer bush regeneration program, an enviro YouTube channel and being financially sound with all its deprecation funded: no mean achievement in these lean times.

Bankstown Council shared the honours for its sound management and innovation, including town centre improvements, digital branding, bush regeneration, compost bin and mulch program, a $22 million library and knowledge centre, extensive community grants program, focus on staff development and leadership, youth engagement programs and co-ordinating a regional dumping squad.

Cootamundra Shire Council took out the regional award for excellent community engagement. The council’s achievements numbered a new regional arts centre and theatre, new heated swimming pool, a joint soil contamination venture, gasworks rehabilitation, a companion animals strategy, a range of environmental programs and collaboration and involvement with 130 community groups.

Eight local councillors were also honoured for their dedication and service.

Cr Peter Routley (Urana Shire Council); Cr Greg Piper (Lake Macquarie City Council); Cr Alice Glachan (Albury City Council) and Cr Des Manwaring (Lachlan Shire Council) were awarded the honorary title of Emeritus Mayor for serving a minimum of three one-year terms as mayor.

Outstanding Service Awards, which recognise councillors with more than 20 years of service were given to: Cr Russell Webb (Tamworth Regional Council); Cr Phillip Betts (Tamworth Regional Council); Cr Betty Murphy (Central Murray County Council) and Cr John Medcalf (Lachlan Shire Council) as well as Cr Des Manwaring and Cr Greg Piper (also awarded Emeritus Mayor titles).

Mr Rhoades said he was proud of the leadership that mayors and councillors gave to their local communities.

“Local Government is facing unprecedented reform, which only reaffirms the importance of recognising the role of mayors and councillors in providing sound leadership in times of change,” Mr Rhoades said.

“Being a councillor is a complex and challenging role. The passion and vision that these award recipients have shown during their tenures in local government is motivational.”

The major conference recommendations adopted by the state government were two-year terms of mayors, a review of the much-hated NSW ratepegging system and a new, easier to understand Local Government Act by 2016.

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