18 February 2020

'It's hard to be positive': Mayor lets fly at merged council's financial future

| Edwina Mason
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Abb McAlister

Worrying times ahead for Cootamundra Gundagai Mayor, Abb McAlister, who is concerned the cost of running a merged council will impact most on ratepayers. Photo: Supplied.

There’s only so much a mayor can take.

As he was setting up display stands for this weekend’s Gundagai Show, Cr Abb McAlister made it clear he’s finding it hard to remain positive about the future of the Cootamundra Gundagai local government area.

A straight-shooting Gundagai man to the core, Cr McAlister’s been in local government for years, 15 of which he served as deputy mayor of Gundagai Council and six more as mayor.

He was never happy about his council being forcibly merged with Cootamundra, a sentiment shared by many in his shire.

Cr McAlister and his then deputy David Graham put up $93,000 to fight the merger in the Land and Environment Court. They lost. And are still $93,000 out of pocket.

Despite this, during three years as the democratically-elected leader of this disharmonious pairing he has nimbly juggled and, for the most part, unified the contrasting needs of each community, which, he once claimed, really had just one thing in common: football.

Now he’s worried.

“Oh mate, this merger, to be truthful, it’s cost a lot of money,” Cr McAlister told About Regional.

“Our finances aren’t good at all. Something has to happen in the long run, whether it’s a demerger or the state government puts money in or we’ve got to cut a lot of services and also staff.”

Wages and travel are the biggest costs, he said.

“Wages are now nearly $3m a year more than what they were – that’s $60m there over 20 years.”

Estimates indicate employees travelling the 58 kilometres between offices in Gundagai and Cootamundra are costing the council $600,000 per year.

“It’s the tyranny of distance by the time they pack up, sit in the car, [plus] lost time, fuel, maintenance costs and council expenses.” Cr McAlister said.

Merger justification can be traced back to a 2015 KPMG report commissioned by the state government into potential savings from amalgamating councils, a document that has never been made fully public despite demands for its release.

“Originally in the KPMG report Minister [Paul] Toole said [amalgamation] was going to save us $3m over 20 years – that’s combined councils,” he said.

“When you work it back, that $3 million, we’re only saving $150,000 per year by combining.”

In 10 years’ time, the mayor said, with a special rate variation the council will be handling deficits of around $30 million.

“I want to be positive but it’s hard to be positive when financially the future doesn’t look bright.

“We have a very good council, we work well together and we all want what is best for the ratepayer, but it’s going to be tough. We’re working on rates harmonisation at the moment and there’s going to be some shocks there.”

With former NRMA boss Wendy Machin heading a panel responsible for the selection of regional roads for reclassification to state roads, Cr McAlister said council staff could lose jobs.

“If we lose this 15,000 km of road over the state and they contract it out, we’ll have to put workers off … If you give that money to council, every cent of that money is spent on the road, you contract it out and that contract always has 25 to 30 per cent on top.”

Federal drought relief funding to Cootamundra Gundagai LGA last month delivered $1m and, while welcomed, proved the disparity, Cr McAlister said.

The hilly Gundagai region received more rain in 2019 than Cootamundra.

“Temora and Coolamon have received two lots of drought funding – $2 million each. If we weren’t a merged council we would have received a million each between two ex-local government areas. In fact, Cootamundra would likely have received $2 million. It’s just unfair!”

Amid all this, the former shires of Tumbarumba, Tumut, Cootamundra and Gundagai could be restored, with demerging being considered by NSW Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock. Submissions from the voting public and council where lodged before the January 31 deadline.

Cr McAlister just wants the process followed properly.

“That’s all I ask – and that they’re fair dinkum about it,” he said.

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Ellen Coleman9:49 pm 06 Jun 21

I got an email back from council but still can not C WHY My Father & I R paying garbage collection when WE DO NOT GET IT.
I do not even go 2 the tip, when Mum goes She still has t pay!!

Demerge Gladys it is in your hands

Tumbarumba residents have been asking for a Demerger for over four years. So much valuable time and money has been wasted because the wrong decision was made to forcibly merge us with Tumut. Both in residence fighting for this right but also by mismanaged council funds, staff and equipment. Not to mention totally abandoned previously planned and budgeted for projects.
I don’t know how many times they need to be told to just Demerge us and let us get on with fixing what they’ve broken so everybody here can live a much happier harmonious and financially efficient life.

Lisa McAuliffe7:11 pm 16 Feb 20

I think the government should take a long hard look at the long term consequences of so called saving money. We’ve watched government jobs cut over the last 20 years on the Council, NPWS and forestry but look what’s happened with bushfires. Total devastation and I know first hand, not enough man power or resources to defend a serious grass fire let alone a catastrophic bushfire, we are told to evacuate. Shame that on return , we have learnt not to far away these little places lively hood will be gone. Jobs will be reduced by a least half within 5 years in the logging industry. It will cost the government even more and make no mistake. The long term impact of watching these places burn to towns like Tumbarumba , Barlow, and Tumut with the logging industry will be much more devastating than the fire front itself. Sure, short term there will be jobs but watch this space in 1-2 yrs when the real impact will be felt. It will be a similar outcome for merged councils long term in regional area. Remote towns cannot operate nor be compared to merged councils in More heavily populated areas and it’s not rocket science to work out why( not as many ratepayer) = less income and much more rough terrain area to manage. The average hard working family don’t get involved and can not be bothered wasting their time arguing in parliament like a pack of monkeys because they exhausted holding down up to four jobs for the family to exist and have a few nice experiences in life. Hence a lack of knowledge and communication shared. Stop heavily influencing the public with un proven evidence that merged councils are financially more sustainable when really long term the government wouldn’t really have a clue what this financially does to communities, come down and live here for a few years , office work can be done remote, just a heads up bring a bloody good antenna with you because even basic things like phone reception are terrible on a daily basis. I agree totally, my word it’s hard to stay positive whilst watching some of the important decisions made within Australia continually dragging the little less important communities down.

I thought the Government were going to reumburse Abb and David, that is a terrible impost on both men.

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