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Amalgamation prospects

Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall comment, April 2016

Disputes items in Palerang’s formal submission

Section 218CA of the Local Government ACT says no local government staff layoffs in rural localities with less than 5000 inhabitants.  Queanbeyan asking this be set aside for flexibility vis a vis Bungendore and Queanbeyan staffing.

All staff positions would be protected for three years under a merger

Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall
Queanbeyan Mayor Tim Overall

Council has finalised its position on two merger proposals being assessed by the NSW Government. Our full submission, including a number of supporting reports, are available at Queanbeyan City Council.

There has been some confusion about the intent of certain aspects of Queanbeyan City Council’s (QCC) submission and I would like to clarify a number of inaccuracies in Palerang’s submission.

Their submission focuses on a report commissioned by Queanbeyan City Council in April 2015. This report was not endorsed and had been replaced with more recent data in April 2016 and lodged with Council’s merger submission (available on our website).

The April 2015 report stated that for a full merger to be sustainable, around 60 jobs could be cut. This was not supported by Council. Council supported the Minister’s part and full merger proposals on the basis of no forced job losses, and in fact new jobs would be created to provide new services.

Palerang’s submission makes reference to Queanbeyan’s desire to dismantle the Bungendore and Braidwood offices and their staff levels should a full merger proceed. This is completely false – Council has made submissions recognising Braidwood as a rural centre.

QCC also supported not breaking up the staff of Palerang and keeping their expertise intact. In respect of Bungendore, regardless of what merger option is finally adopted, we still see the need for an office there.  All we are asking for is ‘flexibility’ and some equity between Queanbeyan and Bungendore staff, rather than being tied into fixed staff numbers in the town as is required by Section 218CA of the Act.

Therefore, in Council’s submission, we called for the Minister to consider making Bungendore exempt from Section 218CA which requires the number of employees at a rural centre with a population of less than 5000 to be maintained in perpetuity. The request is based on the fact that:

  • Many staff were formerly from Yarrowlumla Council and lived in Queanbeyan and Canberra, currently less than 20 Palerang staff reside in Bungendor
  • Bungendore is not a traditional rural centre reliant on the council as the town’s main employer with 60% of residents travelling to Queanbeyan or the ACT for work
  • Bungendore staff have grown from 60-80 since Palerang established headquarters there in 2004, including staff employed on the basis of grants or contract income that may not endure
  • While Braidwood and Captains Flat are certainly rural centres, the non-classification of Bungendore will allow integration of back office functions, movement and development of staff between Queanbeyan and Bungendore and the continued use of existing shared systems

Palerang also claimed the Bungendore office would be closed and used for an expanded library and Rural Fire Service office – this is not being considered. It will be the decision of a new council, not QCC, as to the scale and operation of offices and depots in the towns.

To make it clear – if a merger goes ahead, whether it be a full or part merger, it is not the intention of Queanbeyan City Council to cut jobs in Bungendore and Braidwood.

All staff positions within the new entity are protected for a minimum of three years under the award. The legislation maintains current council job numbers in the townships in Palerang in perpetuity.  The intention of QCC’s submission is to create a sustainable and flexible council that delivers quality services to the community in a cost efficient manner.

Palerang Mayor Pete Harrison responds

An Administrator will decide Bungendore staffing numbers

Analyses: both councils would fare better financially staying independent

Merger forecast: serious and unnecessary pain

Palerang Mayor Pete Harrison
Palerang Mayor Pete Harrison

With regard to comments from elsewhere on this matter, the only reason to seek exemption from s.218CA of the Local Government Act in the present context is to allow a reduction in staff numbers in Bungendore. If there was no intention to reduce staff numbers in Bungendore, there would be no need to seek exemption from s.218CA.

Note also that this exemption is a CONDITION of Queanbeyan City Council’s (QCC) accepting the merger proposal, so it is very much the case that they do not believe that the proposal would be viable unless they were able to reduce staff numbers in Bungendore.

Further, from the day any Proclamation is issued, neither Palerang Council nor QCC will exist. The Proclamation will define the conditions surrounding the new Council, and it will be the new Council thereafter, clearly, that will make all relevant decisions, no matter what either Palerang Council or QCC might have liked. Of course, in the first instance, the new Council will be run by an administrator, but after the subsequent elections (in March 2017) it will be the elected Council.

Regardless, the new Council will be governed by the laws as advised in the Proclamation. If those laws include exempting Bungendore from s.218CA, then the new Council, administrator or elected members, depending on the time, will be able to make any decision they like with regard to staffing in Bungendore.

They could increase staff numbers, they could keep them the same, or they could reduce the numbers to the point of closing the Bungendore office. It will not be Palerang or Queanbeyan Councils that makes this decision, it will be the new Council, so any comments or commitments made by any current Council will be irrelevant—none of them will have any say in the matter because they will no longer exist.

If there is no exemption granted with respect to Bungendore and s.218CA, the new Council will not be permitted to reduce staff numbers in Bungendore.  Period. In a growth area such as Bungendore and its surrounds, the fact that this is ‘in perpetuity’ should be of no consequence because one would expect staff numbers to keep increasing, not decrease at all.

So if there was a genuine intention to retain staff numbers in Bungendore, there would never have been any need for a condition exempting it from s.218CA, as this would have been entirely unnecessary.

What we want in Palerang is also a flexible Council that delivers quality services to the community in a cost-efficient manner. All of our analyses, and it would appear those also conducted by QCC, indicate that the best way to achieve this is to let the two Councils get on with the job as they are. All of these analyses, except the one that QCC is noting was not endorsed, have predicted serious financial consequences if any of the merger proposals proceed under current conditions (i.e. without, for example, allowing staff numbers in Bungendore to be reduced).

QCC has effectively stated in their resolution and submission relating to the merger Proposal that they would be prepared to proceed if they were allowed to, amongst other things, reduce staff numbers in Bungendore.

Palerang Council, on the other hand, holds the position that there are no acceptable conditions under which the new Council could operate sustainably. Palerang could have set similarly unreasonable conditions on its support for a merger, like demanding that the new Council offices be located in Bungendore, or that the new Council comprise equal representation from the two former Councils, but these sorts of conditions would clearly be no more acceptable to others than the conditions being proposed by QCC.

If the Minister proceeds with a merger regardless, Palerang staff and councillors will contribute as they are able to provide the best outcome for Palerang residents, but all of our independent analyses indicate that this would not be without ‘serious and unnecessary pain’, the more so for Palerang residents than Queanbeyan residents because they will invariably be in the minority.

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