28 October 2021

Hilltops Council faces off with union as it confronts $45 million deficit

| Edwina Mason
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Hilltops Council building

Hilltops Council has voted in a six-point recommendation to help arrest a rolling $45 million deficit accumulated since Young, Harden and Boorowa councils amalgamated in 2016. Photo: Edwina Mason.

On Wednesday, 27 October, Hilltops Council unanimously voted in a six-point recommendation to help harness its burgeoning deficit.

The six-point recommendation includes a wage and staff freeze; tightening of the belt on costs; potential job reductions; review of services; possible sale of assets; and a potential Special Rate Variation.

In a week where town tensions escalated as the United Services Union (USU) took Hilltops Council to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission for breaches of the NSW Local (State) Government Award, social media radiated qualms over the viability of the local government area in the face of a rolling $45 million deficit.

Citing council’s plan to dismiss up to 30 per cent of staff, freeze wages, sell off plant and equipment, and look at the use of contract labour without providing a notice of intent was what the USU described as a breach of the NSW Local (State) Government Award.

United Services Union infographic

The United Services Union took Hilltops Council to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission for what it described as a breach of the NSW Local (State) Government Award. Image: United Services Union.

On Tuesday, 26 October, the NSW Industrial Relations Commission recommended a stop to all proposed actions – first announced at a meeting with council staff on Friday, 22 October, and detailed in council’s meeting agenda – ordering the council into urgent talks with the USU.

Hilltops Council general manager Anthony O’Reilly parlayed with union representatives, including USU general secretary Graeme Kelly, reaching consensus prior to the meeting.

Mr O’Reilly assured councillors reworded recommendations and agreement on ongoing consultation meant both parties were satisfied.

During debate, several councillors – weighted by the looming local government election on 4 December and a new council being imminent – expressed mixed feelings, deftly counselled by the Mr O’Reilly who outlined the consequences of deferment.

Hilltops Council Mayor Brian Ingram said postponement of the September 2021 elections to December was a matter completely out of their control.

“We need to be fair to the incoming council,” he said. “We didn’t want to burden them with such a heavy weight at the start of their term.

“The councillors made the decision last night because we thought it was our role and our duty to allow the general manager to implement some of the procedures, such as the Special Rate Variation, because of the need to consult with the community.

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“The timeframes were state [government] set because of COVID-19. We weren’t in a position to implement anything last night [Wednesday]; what we did do was recommend the general manager and staff take it to the new council and they need to look at just how they’re going to go about taking it forward.”

Mayor Ingram said the current council was well poised for Wednesday night’s discussion, having participated in a workshop some weeks ago, but there was apprehension expressed around the loss of staff.

“You don’t want to see people lose positions, but it is a reality – we have to look at that area – and that’s a concern to all staff,” he said.

“Of course, one of the other great concerns is Special Rate Variations, which means a cost to all ratepayers so you have a reduction in staff and you’re asking for more money. You have to balance that very carefully while keeping an eye on the levels of service.”

As council enters November’s caretaker mode, Mayor Ingram said Wednesday night’s decision effectively gave the green light to Hilltops Council executive to delve deeper into their businesses to maximise efficiencies.

Hilltops Council Mayor Brian Ingram

Hilltops Council Mayor Brian Ingram. Photo: Hilltops Council.

“Now the general manager is working closely with the unions, and the unions are onboard with us for the journey,” he said.

“They’ll be looking at the options we put up last night, including looking at the cost of consultants, where we’re spending our money, costings of works, improving our collections user fees and charges, which are the smaller areas of focus, but the bigger ones are staff numbers and possibility a Special Rate Variation, which will come before the new council.”

Mayor Ingram said the legacy of amalgamation and how it was initially implemented weighed heavily on council’s shoulders.

He said it is important to reflect on the fact that prior to amalgamation, the individual councils of Young, Harden-Murrumburrah and Boorowa had around 220 positions.

“We’re in the situation there are 42 more positions in Hilltops Council,” said Mayor Ingram. “Amalgamation was supposed to be about working smarter and doing things more efficiently.

“There’s no need for any panic or speculation about council’s financial position. It is still on very solid ground. You cannot keep running deficits, and we have now got the senior staff and executive there who have brought this to the table and found a way forward.

“We presented our financials this year within the statutory timelines, something we haven’t been able to do since Hilltops Council was formed.

“There’s a long way to go, but I’m very pleased to say the ship has been turned around and we’re heading in the right direction.”

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