A small army of experts conducting public inquiries into NSW council mergers, known as “delegates”, are costing taxpayers $1500 in fees each per day, resulting in a final bill that could easily top $1 million in fees alone.
Department of Premier and Cabinet (DP&C) November 2015 guidelines Assessing Merger Proposals: Guidance for Delegates give the daily rate for delegates who are not currently public servants as $1500 a day. Only three of the 18 delegates appointed appear to be currently employed as public servants, leaving 15 on juicy consultants’ rates; a daily rate that translates to an annual salary of $360,000.
The crack team of delegates, with hundreds of years of government experience between them, is in charge of running 45 public inquiries into council mergers – most of which have already been held – although ten new merger proposals have led to a fresh batch.
It soon adds up. Metropolitan Sydney councils generally ran two sessions as part of their public inquiries, one during the day and another in the evening, while many regional councils ran three or four sessions due to the distances involved.
For example, the merger proposal between Armidale Dumaresq, Guyra Shire, Uralla Shire and Walcha Councils will involve twelve hours of public inquiries over two days in four different locations on April 7 and 8.
That’s two day’s work right there, before delegate Greg Wright, principal of management consultancy firm Wrightassociates, has collated any of the written and verbal submissions, updated his records, met with councils and other interested parties or written a report for the Boundaries Commission.
Pulling all of this information together is unlikely to be an easy task, particularly given how contentious many of the merger proposals are.
Mr Wright is also likely to include a mileage claim and food and accommodation expenses, as it is a round trip of 13 hours and 1,100 km from his office in Picton to the first inquiry in Armidale.
Since the vast majority of the delegates do not currently work in the public sector – though nearly all have in the past – the government will also be slugged with fees charged by recruitment firms who contract delegates back to DP&C. Two recruiters, Korn Ferry and Hudson, have been brought in and they could charge between 15 and 20 per cent on top of the daily $1500 figure for each recruit, especially since these are senior, specialist positions.
NSW Local Government Shadow Minister Peter Primrose said that this was the cost of Mike Baird’s “faux consultation” for forced local government amalgamations.
“It’s clear that this Government will stop at nothing to push through its forced local government agenda,” Mr Primrose said.
“For a government that continues to bandy around the cost savings of amalgamations it is highly questionable whether this expensive process delivers value for NSW residents.”
A spokesperson from the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet said the Department was providing administrative support to help delegates examine merger proposals.
“The amount of time that each Delegate will spend on a merger proposal will vary depending on factors such as the number of submissions received, number of public inquiries and the number of councils involved,” the spokesperson said.
“Their appointment followed an extensive process that included an external agency assessing the role and its responsibilities and recommending a salary.
“Information on the Delegate’s employment history can be found at www.councilboundaryreview.nsw.gov.au. Once the Delegate has finalised their report, they will provide the report to the Minister for Local Government and to the Boundaries Commission for comment.”
The much-vaunted $2 billion in savings from council mergers over 20 years, mentioned in the October 2015 IPART report , appear to be gradually dissolving in other areas too.
North Sydney and Woollahra Councils are mounting a legal challenge in an attempt to skewer Premier Mike Baird and make him start the forced amalgamation process all over again on a legal technicality.
Meanwhile, Ku-Ring-Gai Council is seeking orders in the Supreme Court to force the NSW government to release the full KPMG report that the government has said forms the bedrock of its merger case, after twice being refused by the government under freedom of information legislation. The case is listed in the Supreme Court for April 5.
Other councils have been spending money on community consultation and polls to gauge the level of feeling around forced mergers. Kiama Council has paid the NSW Electoral Commission to conduct a poll on May 7 asking locals how they feel about merging with Shoalhaven Council.
NSW councils will also be mindful of the bills they’ve got coming up in the form of local government elections.
NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole announced last week that local council elections will occur in September this year for councils not affected by mergers and in March 2017 for new, amalgamated councils.
Mr Toole said in response to a question without notice last week: “This question in relation to council elections is an important one. We have made it very clear in relation to proposing council elections that if a council is a merger proposal then those council elections are scheduled for March of next year; and we have told other councils that it is business as usual and to prepare for an election in September this year.”
Local Government NSW (LGNSW) had already cautioned against setting two different election dates, due to the confusion it could cause. LGNSW President Keith Rhoades said a survey of local councils had indicated a “clear overall preference for all council elections being held at the same time” but the government had ignored the plea.
The 2008 local government elections caused consternation among many NSW councils after they received larger than usual bills from the NSW Electoral Commission afterwards, with many councils claiming their bills were not transparent.
A 2011 report on cost-shifting by LGNSW claimed that the Commission overcharged councils by almost $2 million, through inflated staff wages, payroll processing and unnecessary fees to maintain electoral roles during the 2008 elections.
Since the 2012 local government elections NSW councils have been allowed to outsource elections privately, use the Commission, or appoint their own returning officer and organise an election without involving the usual authorities.
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