The hopes of several communities west of the Snowy Mountains are now pinned to NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock as she considers two demerger reports handed to her by the Local Government Boundaries Commission.
With Cootamundra Gundagai Regional Council (CGRC) ratepayers facing a 53.5 per cent permanent Special Rate Variation (SRV) to help stem their mushrooming costs – which Mayor Abb McAlister said arose from the 2016 forced amalgamation of their two shires – he is sweating on the outcome.
“That SRV isn’t to help build a main street like they’re meant to be for – or put in a new swimming pool – it’s solely to keep us solvent,” he said.
Citing operational expenses up to $12.5 million per year, Mayor McAlister said failure to secure the SRV will mean a 25 per cent reduction in staff and a 35 per cent reduction in services.
The former Gundagai Mayor is a long-time opponent of the merger. He said council was unanimous in its support of disbandment.
“We were financially stable five years ago and now we’re looking at a 53.5 per cent rate variation,” said Mayor McAlister. “All of this is because of the costs of amalgamation.
“Our people are bleeding. They’re upset and it’s wrong. We told the minister, we prewarned her, and we should not as councils have to bear this burden.”
Local government expert Associate Professor Joseph Drew said the cost of a de-amalgamation of CGRC – around $1.75 million – would only ever be incurred once, with ongoing savings higher than ongoing costs.
The Local Government Boundaries Commission recently announced it had completed its examination of the two elector-initiated proposals to demerge Snowy Valleys Council and Cootamundra Gundagai Regional Council, which included hearings in the two local government areas in November 2020.
Chairman Bob Sendt said the commission’s reports had been submitted to the NSW Minister for Local Government for her consideration.
“It is important to understand the role of the Boundaries Commission,” he said. “The commission is set up under the Local Government Act as an independent statutory authority.
“Where the minister refers a proposal to change local government boundaries, the commission’s role is to examine the proposal, consider the factors set out in the Act, and make a recommendation to the minister.
“For these two proposals, it is also important to understand that the commission’s role was not to re-examine the 2016 merger proposals or decisions. Our role was forward-looking – to determine what we believe will now be best for these communities.”
Dr Neil Hamilton of Save Tumbarumba Shire said the Boundaries Commission got a very clear message from the people of Tumbarumba and Tumut that they want to demerge.
“They’ve been plied with clear evidence that financially we can make a go of it; that should leave them with absolutely no doubt about a demerger, and we hope they have provided that information and that recommendation to the minister,” he said.
A bloodletting is predicted for Snowy Valleys Council as residents head to the polls later this year for local government elections.
Dr Hamilton says discontent brewing in the south of the local government area has been fuelled by scarcity of council support in the rebuild after the Black Summer bushfires combined with bushfire grants – applied for by council – going to the Tumut end of the shire, and the predicted loss of timber mills jobs in 2021 that are likely to annihilate the Tumbarumba community.
“The council itself is utterly incompetent,” he said. “It doesn’t represent the views of the people. They’ve decimated the shire financially – they spent all the reserves they had – and they’re still going backwards. Their running long-term financial plan shows they’ll be going backwards for another nine of the next 10 years.”
He says the process of demerging is one that is openly political, with no obligation for a decision from Minister Hancock, with concerns it could be deferred until after the September local government elections.
“We keenly await the release of the report, but assume that’s not going to happen until the minister makes a decision, if ever,” said Dr Hamilton.
Faced with a government he believes is unwilling to step back from amalgamations which “been a dismal failure throughout regional NSW”, Dr Hamilton predicts “one awful fight coming”.
Planning is already well underway ahead of the local government elections on 4 September.
“There will be a very significant cohort of people standing to remove the current council and come the public meetings, when people stand up for what they stand up for, I very much doubt many of the existing councillors will be standing there because they will be booed out of town,” said Dr Hamilton.