The future of Tumut and Gundagai shires is uncertain, with neither council deemed fit to stand-alone, but Gundagai mayor Abb McAlister declaring his shire will fight an amalgamation.
The fallout comes as the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) delivered its recommendations to the state government on Tuesday, in which both Tumut and Gundagai shires failed to prove they were fit for the future.
Tumut council leaders have declared amalgamation is the lone possibility left to the councils but Gundagai’s mayor is reluctant to accept a voluntary merger.
Tumut mayor Sue Bulger said councillors will explore their option in the lead up to a November 18 response deadline, but said merging is the only viable option left for the shires.
“Merging is the only real option, we must investigate it further,” Clr Bulger said.
“We’ve always supported council reform and a new way of things. Now we must go further into deliberation, having our first meeting and be engaged and show leadership in reform.”
However Gundagai mayor Abb McAlister said it is his view merging with Tumut is not in the best interests of the shire.
“In my personal opinion, if we have to merge, they (the state government) will be doing it from their end because we won’t be doing it off our own bat,” Clr McAlister said.
“We have always said, a merge with Tumut would not be in the best interests of our shire, and that the state government, throughout this whole process, has never told us what the benefits of a merge would be for us. We asked Tumut to explain the benefits to us and they couldn’t.”
Clr McAlister clarified he could only state his opinion, not that of his fellow councillors saying council would be holding an extraordinary meeting next Tuesday to discuss the IPART results.
Tumut Shire General Manager Bob Stewart handed down a message to the affected communities: saying the foundation of community ties and community spirit will not be affected by an amalgamation of bureaucracy.
“People make the community, not the council; councils work with the community,” Mr Stewart said.
“My personal opinion as someone working in the sector is it’s time we got reform finalised, unfortunately discussion has been hijacked in the past by the merger debate but there’s lots of good in the package.”
Despite extensive efforts, Tumut and Gundagai Shire Councils both were deemed unfit by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, making the possibility of a mass 7,025km2 amalgamated shire almost unavoidable.
Both councils were deemed unfit, as they had not adequately considered merging with each other.
Although Tumut Shire satisfied financial sustainability, infrastructure and service management and efficiency criteria, the council failed to satisfy scale and capacity criteria.
Most importantly they did not demonstrate their stand-alone proposal is more or equally beneficial than a merger with Gundagai.
Meanwhile Gundagai shire, which was applying to stand alone council under the new Rural Council classification, did not satisfy scale and capacity requirements as well as failing financial sustainability and efficiency criteria.
The decision handed down on Tuesday sent shockwaves through both councils with Gundagai’s mayor Abb McAlister disputing IPARTs judgement.
“Throughout the whole Fit for the Future process we did everything right, we ticked all the boxes, we are a financially sustainable council and we have the full support of our ratepayers,” Mr McAlister said.
However Clr Bulger and Mr Stewart said it is now merely a matter of dealing with the outcome and moving forward in the way most beneficial to the community.
“We’re a bit bamboozled,” said Clr Bulger.
“We failed on the scale and capacity criteria and are a bit puzzled by the timeline of 30 days to make a decision. We have one meeting planned between then so we are going to propose a special workshop.”
While planning to work with the community the final decision on Tumut’s future is going to be made by the elected councillors.
Clr Bulger says it is a time to deal with the facts and move forward, with Tumut councillors needing to step up and provide leadership during this transformative time.
Mr Stewart said Tumut council was hampered by the unwillingness of their neighbours to discuss mergers.
“We met all the indicators other than scale and capacity which if you go back to the independent panel recommendations has a merger with Gundagai as a baseline that we must meet,” Mr Stewart said.
“We’re a little disappointed in IPART but at the end of the day Tumut was constrained by Gundagai’s wanting to be an independent council, and now it’s come back we’re both not fit.”
Mr Stewart said the finding that Tumut did not adequately explore mergers was disappointing, as he believes Tumut did try to openly review their options.
“We did make an effort, but that effort is discounted; if people don’t want to talk there’s nothing you can do,” Mr Stewart said.
Now IPARTs decisions have been formally handed down, councils have until November 18 to respond to the recommendations.
Mr Stewart has said the government has made its position obvious, saying reform is happening and councils must embrace it for the community’s benefit.
“I think the government has a strong, blunt message that local government reform is going to occur. It’s the message that was delivered at the Local Government conference and again delivered yesterday on a mayoral webcast,” Mr Stewart said.
“Reform is going to occur and we have 30 days to decide how to deal with a merger. We need scale and capacity and we cannot get those without considering a merger.”
Clr Bulger and Mr Stewart believe an amalgamation with Gundagai offers opportunities to benefit both regions into the future.
In light of IPARTs report Premier Mike Baird announced a Strong Communities Fund, which would give each newly merged council up to $15million to invest in community infrastructure projects and up to $10million to ensure rate-payers do not pay for the upfront costs of amalgamation.
Mr Baird said IPARTs assessments show the dire situation council’s are in, calling on local councils to do the right thing by their communities and consider their best options during the 30-days they have to respond to the IPART findings.
“Four years of independent research, analysis and NSW Government consultation with councils and the community has shown that the current system of local government is not working as well as it should be,” Mr Baird said.
“With 60 per cent of councils not fit for the future, this IPART report shows the situation is now critical and that action is needed to ensure ratepayers get value for money and the services and infrastructure they deserve.
“For many councils this is a final opportunity to do the right thing for the future of their communities, which in many cases may include merging with neighbouring councils.”
IPART found local mergers could reduce red tape and council waste, freeing up to $2billion over the next 20 years for ratepayers.
Local Government Minister Paul Toole said councils are ignoring the benefits of amalgamations and resisting change.
Mr Toole said thirty-two councils proposed rate increases to improve their financial position in the hopes of being deemed fit rather than exploring the possibility of merging.
Of these councils, 15 proposed rate rises over 30 per cent.
Mr Toole said councils should explore amalgamations for the benefit of their own communities.
“I urge councils to consider these IPART findings for their council and hold discussions with neighbouring councils and the NSW Government so they can deliver better value for money for ratepayers now and into the future,” Mr Toole said.
“The $2 billion in savings and Stronger Communities Fund will enable each council to make a decision on whether to invest their extra funds into better services, more infrastructure or lower rates for their community.”
Local Government president Keith Rhoades believes the government’s incentive offer is only available to councils to agree to amalgamate prior to November 18, with Clr Rhoades believing it looks increasingly likely forced amalgamations will occur after this date.
Clr Rhoades indicated should councils, such as Tumut and Gundagai, fail to amalgamate voluntarily, communities could potentially miss out on any monetary bonus.
“The Minister has made it very clear that this is a time-limited carrot. Those who don’t agree to merge seem destined to be forced to do so, without financial support,” Clr Rhoades said.
Mr Stewart believes these government incentives will make the transition smoother for residents; meaning ratepayers would not shoulder the burden of amalgamation.
“It’s a significant package on the table to consider over the 30 days, councillors must ask what they can get for the community, and after this time the community have every right to ask why didn’t councillors take the offer. How often does someone come and give a community $15million?” Mr Stewart said.
As of Wednesday morning neither Mr Stewart nor Clr Bulger had discussed IPARTs announcement with their Gundagai counterparts, though a conversation was imminent.
“Every council needs now to digest the findings. I think it was be premature to provide comment on our neighbours, and what other councils should or shouldn’t do,” Mr Stewart said.
The two councils were not alone in their poor status, with almost two thirds of NSW councils deemed unfit for the future.
After extensive investigation of 144 council Fit for the Future submissions, IPART has found 71 per cent of Sydney based councils are not fit for the future while 56 per cent of region councils are not fit, due to not proposing mergers despite benefits or ongoing defects within the council.