Amalgamation on table 

UPPER Lachlan Shire Council is “dead set” against the idea.

Goulburn Mulwaree doesn’t much like the concept either but is preparing for the possibility.

Nearly nine years on from the last local government reforms, council amalgamations are back on the agenda.

Mayor Geoff Kettle has revealed he’s organised meetings with several councils to talk about a possible merger. He won’t say which ones but it’s believed Palerang and Yass Valley are in the mix.

Cr Kettle said he saw more benefit in resource sharing but Goulburn Mulwaree wasn’t sitting back thinking amalgamations wouldn’t happen.

“I fully believe they will,” he told the Post.

“It has to happen because we can’t go on with 152 councils in NSW.”

The Mayor has described the talks as “plan B” if other ideas don’t work.

While the state government has promised no forced amalgamations, Local Government Minister Don Page has said his department would help those who wanted to merge.

Cr Kettle said he was aware councils in this region had talked about mergers among themselves.

But not Upper Lachlan Shire.

“They’re dead set against it,” the Mayor told the Post.

ULSC’s general manager John Bell is on record saying the 2004 amalgamations had not resulted in any savings. In fact it had increased the Council’s area of responsibility, including a vast road network.

Last month Mayor John Shaw said his council was asking the state to leave them alone.

“Let us get on with the job and prove we can be viable as a stand alone entity,” he said. Cr Shaw believed further amalgamation would leave his community feeling more disenfranchised.

Mr Page has charged an independent local government review panel with “improving the strength and effectiveness” of councils. The panel includes chair Professor Graeme Sansom, Jude Munro and local government adviser Glenn Inglis.

The panel’s report released in November put it bluntly.

“Local government in NSW must change. The future is challenging but also full of potential,” it stated.

“…With notable exceptions, local government seems to have been stuck in a rut, waiting for others to take the lead and seeking ‘silver bullet’ solutions to its problems: a share of federal tax, an end to cost-shifting and rate pegging, constitutional recognition.” The report says NSW has too many councils and that various forms of consolidation should be pursued. While the authors acknowledged amalgamation could be disruptive and noted arguments that it didn’t result in cost savings, they said evidence showed there could be significant efficiency gains and savings.

The report stated amalgamation could be an option for councils with populations of less than 20,000 and those experiencing significant economic and population growth.

“The panel will formulate proposals for amalgamations and/or new regional entities and expanded shared services to build local government’s strategic capacity throughout NSW,” the document stated.

The South East Regional Organisation of Councils (SEROC), of which Goulburn Mulwaree, Upper Lachlan, Yass Valley and Palerang are members, has lodged a submission with the review panel.

“Amalgamation, and the loss of local identity and local leadership which often accompanies it, should be seen as a last resort, not a first resort,” it states.

It has proposed a raft of other reforms, including abolition of rate pegging, rating based on improved rather than unimproved capital value, state funding of the pensioner rate rebate, a national financing authority for councils and making available under-utilised state buildings for local government use.

But Cr Kettle said despite the submission, SEROC was openly discussing amalgamations.

The Mayor sits on the SEROC board, as does Upper Lachlan Shire mayor John Shaw.

“The Minister has made it plain that if councils want to discuss amalgamations, he’ll help them do it,” he said.

“But if we sit around with our head in the sand we may well be told how it will be done.”

Cr Kettle said he’d rather negotiate from a position of financial strength.

Whatever the outcome, he said the government should make some “snappy decisions” once the report is finalised.

The panel will release its third discussion paper for public comment in March. A final report is due next July.

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