Any day now, the report on council amalgamations will be released. Despite the promise that there will be no forced amalgamations, the “independent review” implied that many councils are not viable.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, I have spent several weeks in Sydney in recent times. In casual conversation I noted that residents in that unit block were more concerned about the “body corporate” than their local council.
Country councils serve a distinct geographic locality. Quite apart from being a major employer, the council is the centre of the community. It is the community’s face. Without a unique local council many country towns would die.
I have lived in Tumbarumba, Goulburn, Boorowa, Young, Lockhart, and finally Wagga council areas during my working life.
I saw first hand that the quality of the local council defined the town. Take the “local” out of local government, and we have “them”, those who gather our rates but don’t care about “us”.
I talked to Daryl Maguire, who told me that some councils have not adjusted rates in the past, and were never going to be able to catch up. He named a couple in the Riverina that were “basket cases”.
I can see Daryl’s point. Over the years I noted that school canteens were loathe to increase prices “because things were tough on the land”.
In one case I had to show that sandwich prices were not covering the cost of ingredients. Councils have turned to parking fines, for example, because rates are not covering costs to keep their shire afloat.
However, Bland Shire Mayor Neil Pokoney pointed out to me that state government-controlled charges were increasing at unsustainable levels. “The cost of street lighting is going up by 400 per cent,” Mr Pokoney said. “The NSW Country Embassy at the Trade and Investment Centre in Sydney where regional mayors meet investors and industry partners, will be closed at the end of the year,” he added.
Temora’s Mayor, Rick Firman provided figures to show that shortfalls in government funds cost the shire $763,843. This included public library operations costing council $133,835. Bland’s Mr Pokoney echoed that comment, saying libraries were now funded only 8c in the dollar. NSW Councils are calling for a $5.2 million library increase.
Both mayors agreed that cost-shifting by various state governments over the years meant that NSW councils were now paying half a billion dollars per year that rightly should be paid by the state! Council rate rises are capped at 1.8 per cent for 2016-17, despite wage rises of 2.4 per cent.
Councillor Dave McCann from Coolamon Shire was saddened that the commonwealth hadn’t pursued the referendum to recognise local government in the constitution. Grants could then have been paid direct to councils, instead of being drip-fed via the state government.
I see this issue in the light of billions being available for city projects such as light rail at Parramatta, the movement of Education Department staff out of central Sydney to Parramatta (why not to the country?), and the simple fact that the Sydney Metropolitan Area could easily be governed by one regional council, or even none at all, and few voters would care!
Country councils are an essential part of community life. Just like Parramatta, they could become viable very quickly with generous treatment by the state and federal governments.
– Keith Wheeler
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