Pressure is mounting on the State Government to backflip on a decision to merge four councils in southern NSW.
Gundagai’s Council in Exile and Save Tumbarumba Shire are hopeful of a positive outcome after One Nation Member in the Legislative Council Rod Roberts successfully brought a motion calling for an end to the uncertainty around the future of the merged and now financially distressed Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council.
Mr Roberts got the backing of Labor MLC Mick Veitch and an unlikely sympathiser in Liberal MLC Matthew Mason-Cox who said he was “personally very disappointed” with the government’s decision to forcibly merge councils.
“I made that very clear in our party room and in this place,” he said.
“The chickens have finally come home to roost and it is very distressing to see some of the impacts locally – not only in Gundagai and Cootamundra, but indeed in Tumut and Tumbarumba”.
“I will be backing the Government’s critical review of the boundaries commission’s report and lobbying the Government to ensure the wrongs are righted in those local communities,” Mr Mason-Cox added.
An amendment from Greens MLC David Shoebridge, a long-time demerger advocate, requested the State Government bear the cost of any demergers.
The push opened a can of worms with a duplicate motion involving Snowy Valleys Council also brought to the chamber by Mr Shoebridge.
Snowy Valleys and Cootamundra-Gundagai were the by-product of the NSW Government’s May 2016 forced amalgamation of the smaller Cootamundra and Gundagai shire councils, and the Tumut and Tumbarumba shire councils.
Despite the government backtracking on forced council amalgamations a year later, it said those already merged would remain.
Gundagai Council in Exile and Save Tumbarumba Shire have never retreated from their desire to change that – years of community campaigning, protests, public submissions and lobbying resulted in Ms Hancock’s February 2020 decision to refer the two elector-initiated proposals to demerge the two councils to the Local Government Boundaries Commission (LGBC).
In early March 2021, after lengthy public consultation and using financial analysis commissioned from Deloitte Touch Tohmatsu, LGBC chairman Bob Sendt said the commission’s reports had been submitted to Ms Hancock for her consideration.
Gundagai Council in Exile and Save Tumbarumba Shire have requested copies of those reports, a motion also tabled in the Legislative Council.
Ms Hancock, who appeared before a budget estimates inquiry last week, confirmed she would release the report into the Snowy Valleys Council demerger proposal when she makes a decision on the matter “in due course”.
But things are heating up in Tumbarumba as residents face a 25.4 per cent Special Rate Variation (SRV) to combat council’s rising costs.
A recent public meeting requested the town’s chamber of commerce communicate its lack of confidence in Snowy Valleys Council, their opposition to the proposed SRV and the immediate appointment of an administrator to begin the process of demerging.
Cootamundra ratepayers facing a 53.5 per cent SRV had mayor Abb McAlister leading a delegation to Macquarie Street in February citing the detrimental effect the merger has had on the respective communities and the severe financial crisis council is now facing as a result of the forced merger in 2016.
Mr Roberts said both Cootamundra-Gundagai and Snowy Valleys could be assured other people were listening to them.
“I have travelled to Cootamundra to speak with Abb McAlister, I have seen the town and I want people to know that someone else is listening and we are taking action on behalf of the communities down there,” he said.
“We’ve expressed the will of the Upper House and what we want now is Shelley Hancock to work expeditiously and constructively to end the uncertainty surrounding the financial viability of these councils, demerge the existing council structure and restore the former councils in their own rights and provide full funding for the costs of the demerger”.
Earlier this month Mr Shoebridge visited Tumbarumba, touring the town with Snowy Valleys Mayor James Hayes, later meeting with locals and reiterating his support for a demerger of Snowy Valleys.
It is expected his motion will be debated during May’s sitting of the Legislative Council.
In the Lower House, Wagga Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr has also pressed for a swift decision on the Boundaries Commission’s report into the demergers, an issue he said “had bitterly divided the communities”.