Residents in amalgamated Riverina councils say they will not stop pushing for demergers after Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock knocked back such proposals this week.
This follows years of advocacy from the towns of Tumbarumba and Gundagai to regain their former shires, following forced amalgamations in 2016, as well as a recent investigation by the Boundaries Commission.
The Boundaries Commission last year began examining proposals to demerge both Riverina councils. They held public meetings in each region and prepared a report for Ms Hancock with their findings, which was handed to her in February.
Five months later this report has finally been made public, as well as the minister's ultimate decision.
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The Boundaries Commission recommended that Snowy Valleys Council be demerged, with a dissenting report by one commissioner, and that Cootamundra-Gundagai Council remain as one entity. Two commissioners wrote a dissenting report in favour of a demerger, however chairman Bob Sendt's casting vote carried the final recommendation.
In announcing her decision, Ms Hancock said the reports "did not provide a clear consensus on the issue of demerging and do not provide me with the necessary confidence to make these important decisions".
Cootamundra-Gundagai mayor Abb McAlister said he was "very disappointed" with the decision and hopes to sit down with Ms Hancock to understand why she made the decision she did.
Cr McAlister said she should have come to the community if she lacked information.
"Why wouldn't you come back and ask us for that information," he said.
"We waited five months and she comes back and really says nothing directive at all, no straight answers."
A key argument the commission made in its report is that Cootamundra-Gundagai is better served to address the "substantial and urgent" financial strains facing the council as one entity, rather than two.
The council has sought approval from IPART for a 53.5 per cent cumulative rate increase over the four years to 2024-25. The commission said a rate increase is inevitable no matter the outcome of the demerger proposal.
"A new Gundagai council will immediately face a more difficult position ... and it may have to apply for an even greater [special rate variation], while still finding the cost savings," the report argues.
Some Gundagai residents reject the idea they would be financially worse off if their shire was reinstated, arguing that the cost would be much less than forecasted.
"We want to take it on, we want to have a crack and we believe we can get ourselves out of this mess they've put us in to," Gundagai's Jim Saunderson said.
"I don't care if you're the Pope, you're the Queen of England or the United States President, nobody has the right to break people's spirits, and that's exactly what they're doing to this community."
A local businessman for 25 years, he described the special rates variation as a "Band-Aid" that would likely need to be repeated in a decade's time.
"People go to the mailbox to get a bill and all of a sudden it's over half as much again," Mr Saunderson said. "How do these people find that sort of thing, and for what; what are they going to get for it?"
Similar sentiments were shared by Tumbarumba's Chamber of Commerce president Ken Dale, who said the community is "very disappointed" the minister had decided not to demerge Snowy Valleys Council after three of the four commissioners recommended so.
Ratepayers in the Snowy Valleys are also facing a special rate variation of 25 per cent over two years. Mr Dale said he is also anticipating a loss in services, particularly around childcare, aged care and community transport in order to save money.
He believes the rate hike will be most felt by pensioners in the community, as well as people associated with the logging industry, which is currently facing an uncertain future due to the Black Summer bushfires.
Business owner Matt Lucas, who operates the Coffee Pedaler cafe in both Tumut and Gundagai, hopes that the decision encourages the community to "make the best of the situation" and "try to have a positive focus" moving forward.
He has previously expressed support for each council remaining merged, but believes Cootamundra and Gundagai don't have the same "synergies between towns" as Tumut and Tumbarumba do.
"We see negativity come through from different sections and it ends up being emotionally draining, and it's also impacting council staff and means that they can't get on with providing us with the great services they do," he said.
Mr Lucas acknowledged the rate hike facing ratepayers, but said "at the end of the day I don't want to see our service levels decreased".
He said that the minister's decision hasn't provided total certainty for affected towns, due to the Local Government Amendment Bill that passed earlier this year.
"It's allowing for people to still place their focus on trying to demerge, rather than trying to create a better community," he said. "I think as a collective our shire could be much stronger if everyone was moving in the same direction."
In its report, the commission argued that the loudest push for a demerger of SVC is coming from Tumbarumba, rather than Tumut.
A phone survey showed that a slight majority of 51 per cent of Tumut residents wanted a demerger, compared to 88 per cent in Tumbarumba. Additionally, one of the commission's public meetings in Tumut had to be adjourned when no one attended.
The report frequently reiterated that the commission was not examining the initial decision to amalgamate the councils in 2016, and that their role is "forward looking", however many have argued this is vital to the current situation.
"You've got to go right back and see where the problems have eventuated," Cr McAlister said.
"We were two financially sustainable councils and [now] we're basically broke."
The report acknowledged that after almost five years since the merger, there is "no evidence" that continuing anger over the decision will dissipate. They wrote that it was "largely the breadth and depth of the resentment felt by so many in Tumbarumba" that led them to recommending a demerger go ahead.
"If there was any reasonable belief that this attitude would diminish in a reasonable time-frame, the Commission may well have been less inclined to support the Proposal," the report reads.
Much like residents in Gundagai, members of Save Tumbarumba Shire said they would not stop advocating for a demerger, despite the minister's decision.
Wagga-based politicians Dr Joe McGirr and Wes Fang have been openly critical of the decision, with both saying they would raise the issue with the government. NSW Labor has publicly called for a referendum on the matter.
When announcing her decision on Tuesday, Ms Hancock also revealed the NSW government will be conducting a review into the Boundaries Commission to examine the "effectiveness of the membership composition", as well as its functions and processes.
Commission chairman Bob Sendt said the commission welcomes the review.
"We have previously provided the government with a number of suggestions as to how the legislation could be improved," he said. "We would hope that the government would now take those suggestions on board as part of the review."
He was unable to comment on the minister's decision regarding the proposed demergers.
TheDaily Advertiser requested an interview with Ms Hancock, whose office was unable to arrange one. The DA also sent a number of written questions to the minister, however her office said she would not be commenting beyond an initial press release.
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