What’s your council’s future?

June 5, 2015

A meeting of almost 180 people at the Roxy theatre last Thursday night unanimously passed a motion “This meeting does not support any merger with Moree Plains Shire Council or any other Council”.

The meeting was the second in a series of community meetings being held around the shire to discuss Council’s obligation to comply with a series of ‘Fit for the Future’ benchmarks being set by the State Government.

“Gwydir Shire community is at risk,” Garry McDouall, who chaired the meeting, began.

“I am generally passionate about the future of rural communities, but this one in particular,” Mr. McDouall said.

Mayor, John Coulton explained the purpose for the meetings.

“We are seeking the opinion of the residents as to whether you would like us to fight on your behalf for the Shire to stand alone or to merge.

Council itself has resolved to stand alone, but there is not much point in fighting it unless we have your support,” Cr. Coulton said.

Member for Tablelands, Adam Marshall, was unable to attend the meeting because of Parliament sitting, but he sent a letter which the Mayor read out.

“Thank you for the opportunity to publicly confirm my support for the Gwydir Shire Council and the huge efforts being made to address the New South Wales Government’s Fit for the Future Local Government Reform package,” Mr. Marshall wrote.

“This is an important process, and I urge the community to work with Council to determine the best options for Gwydir Shire. Fit for the Future is the Government’s response to the final recommendations of the Independent Local Government Review panel, and the Local Government Act’s task force.

“Following three years of consultation with the local government sector, which I was involved in while still Mayor of Gunnedah Shire Council, this package presents a once in a generation opportunity to improve what local government does and the services offered to our communities.

I commend Gwydir Shire Councillors and staff for working with you, the local community, and providing opportunities for you to learn more about this process and the future Council sees for itself and the entire shire.

“It is important that there is transparency surrounding this process, and that includes setting out the options that could make the Council ‘fit for the future’, and how best to meet the demands of remaining viable into the future. I assure you that I remain steadfast in my support of small councils, as I am of all Councils in the Northern Tablelands, and my commitment to put the decisions that are made in consultation with the community to the government as strongly as I can.”

Cr. Coulton also read a paragraph from a letter from Minister for Local Government, Paul Toole.

“I trust that you are exploring the Panel’s recommendation of potentially merging with Moree Plains Council, or an alternative broadly consistent with that option, the alternative is joining with a joint organisation, which we have done.”

“The Councillors and staff were terribly concerned about that,” Cr. Coulton said.

“It is terribly important that if we are going to remain as an entity of Gwydir Shire as it has been since 2004, we are going to need your support.

Mr. McDouall acknowledged the number of council staff at the meeting.  “Council staff are clearly part of the community and share the same concerns as the rest of us do.”

He explained the history of the process, saying that local government has been squeezed because of rate pegging for the past 38 years, cost shifting from both Federal and State governments, and additional bureaucratic requirements which have been imposed on local government.

The government’s Fit for the Future report identified Gwydir Council as being at risk, and identified two options for Gwydir, one was to merge with Moree, or to join a Namoi regional joint organisation.

“Council moved pretty quickly on the joint regional organisation, and they are part of a pilot program which is the Namoi group. It is in its infancy, and nobody actually knows what a joint organisation is actually supposed to do.

“Immediately after the State election, the government produced the methodology for what they call Fit for the Future,” Mr. McDouall said.

“That methodology identified seven benchmarks that every Council throughout New South Wales is required to either meet or demonstrate that they are capable of meeting within an acceptable time framework, and they are uniformly applied across the state.

“That means a Council like Woollahra Council in Sydney, which includes the richest electorate in the state is directly compared with a council like Gwydir which, only three weeks ago, was identified as including some of the poorer areas of the state. Of course, they are chalk and cheese in terms of assets managed and assets for which the Council has responsibility.

“There is a fundamental assumption in the conclusions that big is better but what we have seen in Victoria, and Queensland and in some of the amalgamations in NSW in the past, is that big is not necessarily better. We have actually seen a number of councils which have deamalgamated or have attempted to do so, and we would have seen very large numbers more if it were financially feasible to do that.”

Mr. McDouall noted the amalgamation of Yallaroi and Bingara cost this community $3 million. “It all came out of rate-payers pockets effectively. There was in that amalgamation no or very little contribution from the State government.

“There is most certainly not any contribution to those councils who realise the amalgamation was a terrible mistake and would like to de-amalgamate. Our previous amalgamation was 12 years ago, so you can imagine what an amalgamation or merger would cost today.”

Referring to the effect any amalgamation would have on Gwydir’s main towns of Warialda and Bingara, Mr. McDouall cited Barraba, which is now on the edge of the Tamworth Regional Council, as an example, of how this community might be at the edge of Moree Plains or any of the Councils which we may be thrown into.

He said that each town could lose as many as 50 jobs. “Fifty jobs means 50 families, it means a loss of probably 150 to 200 people out of our community. We certainly in Bingara have a very flourishing main street, it is always busy, it has a vibrancy about it, it is a great place to visit, people detect a buzz when they come here. What happens when you take 200 residents out of the main street?

“There is nobody in the main street of either Bingara or Warialda who is making a fortune. They are picking along, but take 200 people out and their viability will be severely affected.

Everywhere throughout Australia are dying rural towns, a very sad sight indeed.”

The other area of risk, he said, is the quality of service that one gets from the Council. “The services provided by Gwydir far outstrip the services provided by the surrounding shires, in particular, Moree.

Residents here have direct and immediate contact with Councillors and Council employees. If amalgamated with Moree “we would be right on the fringe of a Council which does not well look after its fringe areas.” Mr. McDouall cited Mungindi as an example.

“If we are to be successful in fighting this threat, we need to be unanimous as a community and unanimous in working with Council to achieve that.”

Several comments were made from the floor, including from Warialda resident, Ted Stubbins, who said the community needs a strategy for growth.

Others who have lived in areas which have faced amalgamation, spoke of their experience.

John Bishton asked how do rates in Gwydir Shire compare with Moree Plains. In answer, Council’s General Manager, Max Eastcott presented the following figures.

Farmland average

  • $4109.22 Gwydir, $8459.46 Moree Plains, $4350.24 difference, 106% difference

Business

  • $361.90 Gwydir, $3479.17 Moree Plains, $3117.27 difference, 861%

Residential average

  • $414.47 Gwydir, $918.98 Moree Plains, $504.51 difference, 122%

The result would see a slight reduction for current Moree plains ratepayers, and an increase in Gwydir Shire.

Mr. Eastcott said that businesses and residential areas in the small towns could be quarantined so they can have some parity with what is paid now, but farmland geographical location cannot be used to quarantine rates.

“Farmland rates would have to significantly increase.” These figures were later disputed by farmer, Bob Muir, who said the rate per hectare must be used rather than a total to get the true picture.

A number of savings the Council has already made were also explained.

Mr. Eastcott told the meeting that wherever possible savings would be made through efficiency rather than by cutting services.

Save Our Shire pamphlets, and draft letters to be signed and sent to the Minister for Local Government and Member for Northern Tablelands were distributed in the meeting.

A meeting at Upper Horton on Monday night attracted 11 members of the public and also passed the same motion by 10 votes to one.

A meeting at Warialda on Tuesday night attracted about 100 people. that meeting also unanimously passed the same motion as at Bingara.

Meetings will continue throughout the shire with the last one scheduled for North Star next Tuesday, June 9.