Public hearings into the proposal to demerge Snowy Valleys Council and reinstate the former Tumbarumba and Tumut Shire Council’s began on Tuesday, with residents of Tumbarumba appearing before a panel of Commissioner’s to share their perspectives.
Following presentations from the Save Tumbarumba Shire group and Snowy Valleys Council, the public hearing opened up for members of the community to speak for three minutes each.
One such speaker was Snowy Valleys councillor Julia Ham, who is one of two current councillors residing in the former Tumbarumba Shire LGA.
She said that prior to the merger four and a half years ago she addressed the same room about her concerns, and standing here now, most of her concerns had come to pass.
Cr Ham made three arguments, the first being that Tumbarumba has always thrived because of its isolation. She said it is the town’s biggest asset, giving it a “can-do attitude” that remains today.
Secondly, Cr Ham said that the Tumbarumba Shire Office was a hub in town, and “a place to drop in if there was any problem at all.”
“There was always an energy and an open-door policy, which is impossible with a larger organisation,” she admitted.
Lastly, Cr Ham said that Tumbarumba is “small but effective,” which was evident during the bushfire crisis when it had to revert to its former state.
“I will never forget visiting our dark council chambers; no electricity, no communication,” she described.
“The energy and organisation of staff fixing a crisis was outstanding.”
Cr Ham finished off her speech by taking a clear public stance on the amalgamation, saying it has affected the town.
“It has brought about a division, a sadness and a fear that was never there before,” she said.
“The town has lost its autonomy, it’s very soul has been challenged, the community has been divided.”
She asked the Commissioners for their “consideration of the effect of the social fabric of our community,” and for the community to move forward together “whatever the outcome.”
Twelve other residents addressed the Commissioners, all of them in favour of a demerger but one.
Angela Lions moved to the region in 2008 and has a background in tourism, and commented on the detrimental effect that 2020 has wrought on businesses.
“We have all been impacted by these tough situations and are now presented with great opportunities for our region,” she said.
Ms Lions said that there are vast opportunities to bring tourists to Tumbarumba and the broader region at large, and that the Snowy Valleys Council have created a “beautiful” marketing campaign to encourage this.
“We should not divide during this difficult time, instead we need to take advantage of what is a great opportunity and build and grow together,” she said.
“If we demerge now and have to rebrand and start again from scratch, we will miss this opportunity that may not come again.”
Ms Lions said that she admires the passion of those pushing for a demerger, but that this passion “has turned into anger and it has created fear within the community.”
She said she knows of people who couldn’t speak in favour of Snowy Valleys Council for fear of backlash in the community.
“We all have something to give and gain by working together,” Ms Lions concluded.
Rod Gollan spoke to the Commission about a reduction in Tumbarumba council employees.
“We were warned that this would happen, it is now happening,” he said.
Similarly, Cath Frew – who is involved with the Historical Society and Artists on Parade – commented on the attitudes towards volunteers under SVC.
She said that through volunteering in the community, she has arrived at the view that volunteers were more valued under the Tumbarumba Shire Council.
“Since amalgamation, 355 committees have been increasingly controlled by Snowy Valleys Council, making volunteering more difficult,” she said.
“Under Tumbarumba Shire the community had easy and personal access to staff and councillors, and we can restore this through demerger.”
Her sentiments were echoed by her husband Ron Frew.
“Big is not better, and we will grasp with vigour the chance to make the demerger successful. I for one would be happy to pay a little extra to be rid of that Tumut mentally and take back control of our lives,” he said.
Tumbarumba Chamber of Commerce president Ken Dale said that from the Chamber’s perspective, the amalgamation has been an “unmitigated failure.”
“The former Tumbarumba Shire spent 5.9 per cent of its expenditure on governance,” Mr Dale began. “The current Snowy Valleys Council spends 40 per cent on governance, 40 per cent.
“The point of this is that there has been such a drain in knowledge, in staff, in strength from the Tumbarumba base that they are now having to outsource with consulting and fees to fill the gaps that they are lacking.”
Lucy Henderson of Tumbarumba Outfitters also spoke about local business, with her shop having existed for 65 years.
She said that she has suffered a “significant downturn in business since early in the amalgamation,” not as a result of bushfires or Covid-19.
Ms Henderson said that the merger was supposed to support a stronger local economy, but has been an “abject failure” in her view.
Michael Ian Pratt thanked the Commissioners for coming to Tumbarumba to listen to residents, sharing an experience from his time as Tumbarumba Divisional Commander for the RFS during the bushfires.
“As the divisional commander, the first thing I knew about the Royal Commission [into the bushfires] coming to Tumbarumba was when I heard about it the next day,” he said, appearing grateful to finally be given a platform to share his opinion.
Former Tumbarumba high school teacher Noelene Haslett also spoke about the bushfires, in the context of funding.
“Tumut was in no way affected by the fires, which didn’t come within 20km of town limits, however, bushfire relief funds have been allocated for Tumut based operations,” she said.
Malcolm Marshall commented that in the SVC Advocacy Plan, “zero dollars will be spent in the area of the former Tumbarumba LGA.”
“No new initiates have been put forward for Tumbarumba, all the initiatives are in the Tumut area demonstrating the Tumut centric thinking of Snowy Valleys Council,” he said, claiming that the projects going ahead in the Tumbarumba area were already budgeted for.
Chairman Mr Bob Sendt finished the first session of the public hearings with the message that “we will take everything you’ve said, everything you’ve written into account when coming to our conclusion.”
Session 1 of the public hearing on Tuesday went from 10am to 12pm. Three more sessions took place on Tuesday in Tumbarumba, the last finishing at 6:30pm.
Four public hearing sessions will take place in Tumut this week, over both Wednesday and Thursday.