Inner West mayors unite against State Government's proposition to council mergers

Sydney’s metropolitan councils will be given a financial incentive to amalgamate under Premier Mike Baird and Local Government Minister Paul Toole’s ‘Fit For Future’ package, announced today.

But the plight of those councils who refuse to merge remained unclear, and the Premier and his minister could give no promises that the State Government would not force councils to amalgamate.

Mayors from surrounding suburbs around Strathfield told the Scene, they too, like Strathfield, are worried about how amalgamations will impact on their communities. 

The announcement comes as the State Government claims the state’s 152 councils are losing up to $1 million a day and that massive reforms are needed to deal with for Sydney’s growing population.

Mayor Daniel Bott told the Scene minutes after the announcement that he would be studying the proposals, but his initial reaction was: "The residents are opposed to amalgamation, as am. This is the state government offering councils thirty pieces of silver to sell out the interests of their communities,” Cr Bott said.

“Council has considered this from every angle and it is demonstrably not in the interests of Strathfield residents for us to amalgamate with Burwood, Auburn, Ashfield - or anywhere else. Compared to its neighbours, Strathfield has a superior budget position, lower rates and charges, better infrastructure, and more desirable community assets. Amalgamation would put all of that at risk.

“Yet here we have the Premier of NSW issuing bribes and threats to persuade us to disregard the interests of our community. Strathfield residents, and NSW taxpayers in general, have every right to feel aggrieved their hard-earned money is being spent on such loaded ‘incentives. Strathfield is already fit for the future.”

Strathfield maintains that over 70 per cent of its residents said they do not want to be amalgamated with surrounding councils in a poll conducted last year.

The fir for future package is the first official reaction to the State Government’s Independent Review Panel, which reported last year and suggested Strathfield be merged with Ashfield, Burwood, Canada Bay, Leichhardt and Marickville.

The surrounding councils, like Strathfield, are also opposed to forced amalgamations.

Mayor of Burwood John Faker told the Scene: "Burwood doesn't support mergers. We will lose the character of local government - the closest form of government with the people. Why is the government setting timelines after the state election?"

Ashfield Council's Mayor Lucielle McKenna said she is worried about scarce amount of detail provided in the State Government's initial report. 

"Our Council has previously taken a position against amalgamation and at this stage the detail of the proposals, including the financial inducements that are yet to be worked through by Ashfield Council. The final outcome will be a decision for Council.

"My personal thoughts are that a merger of six councils proposed in the final report of the Independent Review Panle is absoloutely ridiculous. This would create chaos far into the future. And make a gaggle of consultants wealthy."

Mayor of Marickville Jo Haylen said: ""While are supporitve of local government reform, it would be refreshing if the State Government was a bit more upfront and honest about what is proposed. Mega-amalgamations, as proposed by the Fit for Future program, could create years of uncertainty and inaction. There's evidence that restructures prevent organisations from doing their job for up to 18 months while they focus on internal matter.

"Marickville Council is already progressive and innovative and financially stable. I worry that amalgamations will be disruptive and do little to enhance service delivery and quality of life. Bigger bureaucracies does not necessarily mean better or faster. 

Under the plan, councils will be forced to submit a proposal by June 30, 2015 outlining how they plan to be ‘Fit For the Future’.

The Premier and Mr Toole could not provide any specific criteria required to meet that target.

Their plans would then be judged by an independent panel. Those that were approved would receive cheap loans and finance for infrastructure projects like roads.

Strathfield is seeking State support for its new town Centre plans, which are likely to cost almost $1 billion.  The Premier and Mr Toole refused to answer questions from the Scene about how the council’s requests would be dealt with if they refused to merge.

But Mr Toole claimed several councils had come ‘charging up’ to parliament demanding to be amalgamated.

“We have been listening to the sector and they feel like they need financial incentives to work through the process. This will help with some of the infrastructure backlog,” said Mr Toole.

“All councils are asked to put in a submission by June 30 and this is part for the Fit of the Future package. I have had good discussions with stakeholders, mayors and general managers and I know they have been talking about ways to remove obstacles. Councils have come forward to me that want to amalgamate.”

The State Government will be offering an incentive to Sydney councils of $153 million and $105 to regional councils to merge and spend on infrastructure projects like roads, parks and pathways.

Broken down, metropolitan councils can receive up to $22.5 million, but a quick calculation by one journalist estimated that left room for seven metropolitan councils.

“This is a $1 billion incentive package for councils to come together and make changes that are needed. This will help local communities and will help councils help their communities,” said Mr Toole.

“We know that councils are unsustainable and there are issues around population increases, we know there are financial challenges.”  

Earlier this week, Treasury body TCorp put out a statement claiming that many councils were in a weak financial position, including Strathfield.

Last night, Strathfield councilors voted to demand the evidence from Treasury which led to this conclusion.

Strathfield MP Charles Casuscelli told the Scene he had been assured he would receive the Treasury figures and would publish them.

The package will be a hard sell to the residents of Strathfield, if initial reactions are anything to go by.

Save Our Strathfield’s co-chair Nella Gaughan said: “ Strathfield residents are not stupid. We know amalgamation is not in our interests.

“We know we have so much to potentially lose. For Mr Baird to be coercing our council into doing something against residents interests is disgraceful.”

Strathfield MP Charles Casuscelli said the "Fit For Future" package is designed to encourage some councils to merge with one another. 

“I am proud of the fact that our Government’s approach has been consultative and includes substantial investment in Local Government with a package worth $1 billion," he said.

“I have two LGA’s and parts of three others, I am looking forward to their views now that a framework of reform has been announced. There is plenty of scope for individual solutions to be developed, there is no one size fits all and Councils are encouraged to develop a model that best suits their respective communities”.

For more information visit www.fitforthefuture.nsw.gov.au.


Comments

 Strathfield has managed itself for over a century. Compared to neighbouring LGAs we have lower rates, fewer charges to residents, better planning, better public spaces, and a balanced budget. What on earth would we gain from handing control of our community over to a mega-council authority?

We have alot to lose from amalgamation and nothing to gain.

 

There may be councils wishing to amalgamate but Stathfield is not one of them.

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