The underside of council amalgamations
September 3, 2013
Richard for 2011

Get Clover ... Macquarie Street's latest scheme to oust Independents from control of the City of Sydney ... Final recommendations on council amalgamation due this month ... Alternative proposals ... Alix Piatek reports  

Garbage collection may be part of shares local government services under a quasi-amalgamation plan

FINAL recommendations proposing NSW council amalgamations are expected to be handed to the State government in September.

Suggested changes and model amalgamations were published by the Independent Local Government Review panel in the Future Directions paper and made available to the public for comment in April.

In a bid to become a truly "global city", the report recommends the City of Sydney merge with Botany Bay, Woollahra, Waverley, Leichhardt and Marrickville councils, creating a "mega county council".

"The Panel believes that Sydney's future economic growth and international status will rest increasingly on having a central local government that, like Brisbane and Auckland, has the scale and capacity appropriate to global aspirations ... 

It may also be able to assume responsibility for some State-managed facilities, such as Centennial Park and the Botanic Gardens, freeing-up funds for allocation to projects in more needy local government areas." 

City of Sydney, Waverley, Woollahra, Randwick, Botany and Leichhardt mayors have all expressed opposition to the proposed changes. 

Apart from any economic imperatives driving the amalgamation agenda, it would change the voting demographic of Sydney council and make put the Liberal Party within grasp of taking control of the city. 

The State government legislated to force Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore out of parliament, but it failed to wrest her former seat away from the Independents. 

In the time honoured tradition, whoever governs in Macquarie Street wants to control the Town Hall as well. 

The Liberal team on the city council has not distinguished itself. Edward Mandla and Christine Forster are the best the Liberals could put up. 

Edward Mandla did nothing to elevate standards when he munched his way through a Big Mac duing a recent council meeting, while Christine Forster has few original or bright ideas and is busy trying to be the Liberal flagbearer on the Local Government Association. 

Lord Mayor Clover Moore told The Daily Telegraph that council amalgamation puts the city council's long term plans for Sydney at risk.

"We have a balanced budget, no debt, a record $1.9 billion 10-year infrastructure program and free rates for pensioners," she said.

She is concerned that the light rail initiative, the town centre at Green Square, plus new parks and community facilities could be jeopardised.

Amalgamating local councils would mean major changes to the electoral map and different political representation. 

The Future Directions report says there are not enough resources to maintain NSW's 152 councils and amalgamations would provide increase revenue and tackle the infrastructure backlog.

Within three years nearly half of NSW councils will be facing serious financial problems.

"Work needs to start immediately on assembling and implementing a package of measures to deal with the [financial] issues [the report] has identified."   

During the 2011 State election campaign the Liberal's campaigned on a "no forced amalgamations" platform. 

The review panel report acknowledges that position and commits to promoting incentives that encourage voluntary mergers.

The Urban Taskforce, the lobby group for large developers and financiers, says that councils can be reformed without forced amalgamations.

"Urban Taskforce has a new solution that keeps councils as local bodies while making them much more effective through the use of 'share service centres'," says CEO Chris Johnson.

The Urban Taskforce proposes merging 90 percent of all administrative tasks, with each council retaining a general manager and small support staff for strategic planning and policy development.

Services such as garbage collection and maintenance could be performed by a single centre servicing multiple local government areas.

Australian local councils tend to represent larger populations than their counterparts in other developed countries. 

The NSW Local Government Inquiry conducted in 2006 found there was no correlation between the size of a council and its costs. The report did not recommend council amalgamation.

Lurking in the background is the referendum to alter section 96 of the Constitution to allow the federal government to provide direct financial assistance to local councils. 

The "Yes" case argues that direct funding will mean less bureaucracy, shorter delays in funding being received and enhanced accountability and transparency.

The Commonwealth provides approximately seven per cent of local council revenue through federal grants. 

However, two High Court decisions heard in the last three years, Pape v Commissioner of Taxation and Williams v Commonwealth of Australia have created uncertainty about the validity of funded programs.

If the Constitution is amended, the Commonwealth will be able to bypass the States and give preference to local council funding requirements. 

The federal government has allocated $10 million to the "Yes" case and $500,000 to the "No" case, which was based on the number of votes received in the House of Representatives. 

The referendum now cannot be held in conjunction with the September 7 federal election, because to do so requires a clear 33 days after the Governor General issues the referendum writs. 

Since the election was called at relatively short notice, the 33 day requirement could not be met, so the referendum is off the ballot paper, for now. 

Alix Piatek reporting

Resources: 

Local government inquiry 2006

Urban Taskforce proposal

Future Directions paper

Independent Local Government review panel website 

Article originally appeared on Local news from postcode 2011 (http://postcode2011.com.au/).
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