GUNDAGAI mayor Ab McAlister was incandescent with rage – and rightly so.
After years of passionately defending his council from a lurking forced merger threat, the veteran councillor was now cornered like a rat in a trap.
A smoking gun report into the future of local government had just surfaced and not only was Gundagai council found to be fiscally unfit, but a merger with Tumut was recommended by the body overseeing council reform.
Despite Cr McAlister’s shock, Tuesday’s release of IPART’s findings into the state’s councils carried few real surprises.
The dogs had been barking for months that the report would pave the way for a wholesale cull of councils.
And the state government had been slowly cranking up the rhetoric around the issue in recent weeks.
Almost as predictable as the findings was the reaction to them.
Targeted councils across the Riverina described the report, variously, as a “con job”, a “kick in the guts” and a “sham”.
But the time for hand-wringing is over. Forced amalgamations are now a fait accompli.
As such, it is incumbent upon council leaders to shift their focus from defending the indefensible, to ensuring the best outcome for ratepayers.
Two-thirds of the state’s councils are haemorrhaging cash, forcing taxpayers to prop them up to the collective tune of nearly a million dollars a day. In the age of economic rationalism, it’s simply unsustainable.
Councils that have been deemed unfit for the future must focus their energy on finding a natural merger partner, much as Cootamundra and Harden have done in recent months.
IPART has found local government mergers could save ratepayers nearly $2 billion over the next 20 years, money which could be used to cut rates or provide better services.
There is no reason why a merged entity cannot deliver comparable services to a stand-alone council.
Fit for the future or stuck in the past? That’s the question small councils must confront.
If they’re not prepared to, the winds of change could soon wipe them off the map.
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