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Is amalgamation a done deal? Not if Palerang proves itself ‘Fit for the Future’

by Keith France

Palerang Councillor

So just what is ‘fit for the future’? The NSW Office of Local Government states: “A Fit for the Future council is one that is: sustainable; efficient; effectively manages infrastructure and delivers services for communities; and has the scale and capacity to engage effectively across community, industry and government.”

While it is true to say that Palerang has come a long way since its birth, whether these criteria can be met is a moot point. Council was proclaimed in 2004 following an amalgamation of Tallaganda and parts of Yarrowlumla, Mulwaree, Gunning and Cooma Monaro Shire Councils.

 

Some would express the view that Palerang was set up to fail, and over the decade it has struggled and at one point it looked likely to stumble, but in my view it currently stands as a council that can pay its own way, while successfully providing infrastructure and services to the community.

 

Praise for this change in fortune must go to the hard-working staff of council and to previous councillors.

 

The NSW government’s review panel into local government has recommended that Palerang and Queanbeyan councils should amalgamate. I believe that this recommendation had its genesis in the TCorp (NSW Government Treasury Department) assessments of both councils.

 

The Tcorp review states that the Palerang Council is “currently moderately sustainable but this may deteriorate in the future with the Operating Ratio projected to be in a deficit position after 2012” (note that this deficit forecast proved to be false). It also says that Queanbeyan Council was “in a weak financial position in the short term and this trend will continue.”

 

Both councils challenged Tcorp’s initial assessment and after providing more information, Tcorp improved its view on both but this was not sufficient to change the review panel’s recommendation of amalgamating the councils. One can only wonder at this recommendation.

 

Surely the outcome of joining two small ‘weak’ councils is one larger ‘weak’ council, but this is up to the joint working committee to determine.

 

First see if merger is ‘fit’ then look at individual ‘fitness’

The NSW Government has stated that the question of amalgamation must be addressed prior to any suggestion that either or both councils can stand on their own, and to this end the councils have formed a joint working committee, assisted by a facilitator, to prepare a report within a matter of months on what an amalgamated council might look like and whether or not it might be ‘Fit for the Future’.

In my opinion Palerang as it currently stands is a viable council. But we have to still prove that we are ‘Fit for the Future’. To this end the council must undertake a complete internal audit of its practices and procedures, identifying areas where efficiencies or innovations might be made.

It must examine its staffing structure, review its infrastructure and reassess the delivery of services to the community, while also examining the rating structures to ensure that they are appropriate for the level of services required.

Upon completion of this two part exercise, our local councils must report to the residents so that they can decide if they want to stand alone or amalgamate.

I have heard some residents express the view that amalgamation would be preferable, but please remember that bigger is not always better. While you might be a small fish in a small pond, what would it be like being a small fish in a big pond with big fish? Local government should be for local communities. What representation can you expect to have in an amalgamated council?


Tempting offer?

Queanbeyan Council announced in its November newsletter a plan to survey community opinion through a ‘satisfaction survey’ and a questionnaire on council’s website that month.

 

Queanbeyan has also noted the ‘carrot’ aspect of the state’s amalgamation proposal: $5 million for merging councils plus access to state borrowing facilities, priority access to state funding and grants, eligibility for more devolved planning powers and streamlined rate setting process.

 

NSW has suggested Queanbeyan and Palerang join other south-east councils to form a Regional Joint Organisation, which coincidentally they already do as South East Regional Organisation of Councils (SEROC).

 

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