Council ordered to pay back $36m state grant

A Sydney council has been ordered to pay pack $36 million worth of state government grants after failing to deliver on plans to use the money to build a 36-hectare park.

Ron Hoenig

Hornsby Shire Council was awarded the money under the controversial Stronger Communities grants program which was established in 2017 to support council amalgamations but has been described as a brazen exercise in pork barrelling.

A 2022 audit found 96 per cent of Stronger Communities grants were awarded to coalition electorates, including councils that never actually merged.

In 2018 Hornsby was awarded $40 million under the program for the Westleigh Park project.

“Since then, there have been significant delays in the delivery of the project and limited progress has been demonstrated, with most of the grant money yet to be spent,” Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig said.

“The Council will be required to pay back all unspent funds from the original $40 million grant, estimated to be more $36 million based on the latest report from Council. “

The state government has refused a request from council for more time to use the unspent funds.

Hornsby Council has had years to utilise this funding and the original deadline written into the grant guidelines has long passed.

Local Government Minister Ron Hoenig

“Hornsby Council has had years to utilise this funding and the original deadline written into the grant guidelines has long passed,” Mr Hoenig said.

“Where councils have not demonstrated sufficient progress on projects that received grant funding, the government will be recouping this money and ensuring it is reinvested where it’s needed most.” 

The decision comes after a government panel assessed applications for variations to Stronger Communities funding from 16 councils, of which 12 were approved.

Requests by Federation Council to reallocate $83,889 worth of leftover funds to other projects, and Edward River Council to reallocate $10,000, have also been denied.

A request from Snowy Monaro Council regarding the delivery of a community centre funded by a grant of $200,000 is still being reviewed. 

Council ‘enraged’ by decision

Philip Ruddock
Mayor Philip Ruddock: furious

Hornsby Shire Mayor Philip Ruddock said he was furious about the decision to deny funding for what will be a much-needed recreational precinct, despite the lodging of a DA for construction to begin later this year.

“Our Shire is in desperate need of recreational spaces and new sports facilities,” Cr Ruddock said.

“Since receiving the grant, we have proceeded with extensive planning, community and stakeholder consultation and the due processes required of Council for the new parklands on the basis the funding is ours.”  

He said the state government’s recently announced housing targets made the need even more critical.  

“These targets come with the promise of funding for essential infrastructure so to take away funding that was already given to us, and has been allocated, is ridiculous,” Cr Ruddock said. 

Asked if Horsnby Shire would take legal action over the decision, Mr Ruddock said “Council is now considering what options are available to us to ensure our community gets the recreational facilities it was promised.”

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