Many Guyra residents want their old shire back – but can they afford it?
Two and a half years after the Guyra Shire Council was forcibly amalgamated with Armidale Dumaresq, hopes and passions are still running high.
About 80 people attended a public meeting of Save and Grow Guyra (formerly known as Guyra ANTY) at the Guyra Bowling Club on Thursday night.
This is what the ancient Athenian ecclesia, the people’s assembly, must have been like, at the very dawn of democracy: the polis, the citizen body – many of them practical, well-informed farmers – debating issues that affected them directly.
And that democratic process is what many in Guyra feel the merger has taken from them.
"We’ve lost our autonomy; we’ve lost our own pot of money; we’ve lost our decision-making elective process,” Save and Grow Guyra member Robert Gordon said.
Save and Grow Guyra hope that if the Liberal-National Coalition government lose their seats, the winning party will restore the old council.
“Come March next year, we will get Guyra Shire back if we have a change of government,” member Gordon Youman said.
Labor candidate Debra O’Brien, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidate Rayne Single, and the Greens have all promised to reinstate the councils if they are elected in March – if residents want it.
They need a plebiscite of 10% of Guyra’s population (2,027, according to the 2016 Census) – and Mr Youman said his group collected 662 signatures in a week alone.
Others believe that Guyra is simply too small to stand by itself – and that with Tingha likely to move to Inverell shire, rates will dramatically rise for the 3,500 people in Guyra shire.
"It is unsustainable," Guyra's last mayor Hans Hietbrink, and current president of the Guyra and District Chamber of Commerce, said.
"Guyra Shire was unsustainable even as it was. With Tingha gone, it will be even more unsustainable."
Guyra was amalgamated with Armidale in May 2016 – one of many small communities to be merged by the Liberal-National Coalition in 2016.
Under the “Fit for the Future” scheme, NSW Premier Mike Baird and Minister for Local Government Paul Toole merged councils throughout the state – to the fury of small towns like Cabonne, Molong, Gundagai, Harden, Oberon, Taree, and Tumbarumba.
Local government reform, the NSW Office of Local Government website stated, would “create new, stronger councils, improve council performance, and strengthen the system of local government.
“The reforms will deliver substantial savings and benefits for local communities in NSW.”
That remark is likely to get a horse laugh from many in Guyra.
“The state Coalition government are still in denial that the Fit for the Future process forced on local governments in NSW was a fraud and illegal,” Save and Grow Guyra’s Rob Lenehan said.
“Ex-Guyra ratepayers are totally dissatisfied with the new amalgamated council.
“The forecast $3.8 million deficit at the end of June 2019 is proof that the elected ARC and its administration are incompetent. There is a substantial backlog of road maintenance and upgrades currently in jeopardy of not being completed because of lack of funding.”
Save and Grow Guyra members want the Coalition government to restore the old councils. If they don’t, they say, Guyra residents should vote for parties that will, like Labor, the Greens, or the Shooters.
“Having backflipped on many many forced amalgamations – mainly in Sydney – it's time for the Berejiklian government to reinstate councils like Guyra across the state,” Mr Lenehan said.
“That action we can take as a community, but it has to be the whole community in any action we're going to take against the current government.”
Guyra residents, Save and Grow Guyra members argue, should show government they’re serious, rather than voting indifferently for the Nationals – who they feel have let them down.
A news clip of Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall promising to fight for Guyra was greeted with hoots of derisive mirth.
"He talked about crossing the floor," Mr Youman said. "As far as I'm concerned, he crossed the rest of us."
Mr Marshall, in fact, was not given the chance to vote down the proposal. The Premier, he said, chose not to introduce legislation (which requires MPs to vote) to force through the mergers. He instead used the provisions contained within the Local Government Act, in essence, bypassing Parliament.
“We've got two elections coming up next year,” Robert Gordon said. “We've got to get the message home to our parliamentarians that we're not going to continue to vote for them if they're going to do this to us.
“We've got to get ourselves well and truly prepared for the next elections, to fight a campaign, and to try as an outcome to reduce these New England and Northern Tablelands seats to marginal ones, so that whichever side of politics gets into government, they are worried about maintaining a marginal seat.”
While many Guyra residents feel strongly about having their council back, there’s some doubt whether the town can stand on its own.
Armidale Regional Council mayor Cr Simon Murray and Guyra Shire Council’s last mayor Hans Hietbrink don’t think it can – not without shouldering huge financial costs.
“It could cost a hell of a lot of money,” Cr Murray said.
Fit for the Future would have increased rates in the old Guyra Shire by 30 per cent. That was when Tingha was part of the shire. Now, with Tingha heading to Inverell Shire, residents of a resurrected Guyra shire could be looking at a 40 to 50 per cent rate rise.
Councils in NSW, Mr Hietbrink said, will always be behind the eight-ball because of IPART (Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal NSW), which determines the maximum percentage amount by which a council may increase its general income for the year (the rate peg).
For almost all councils, general income consists entirely of rates income. Councils cannot increase rates or the rate pool without a special rate variation, but can readjust rates accordingly.
Rates are frozen for three years after the merger; that is, councils are forbidden to increase rates – but at the end of that period, Mr Hietbrink said, they will need to increase rates.
“Costs have gone up,” he said; “rate peg has been minimal; and even prior to the amalgamation, Guyra Shire Council, we said quite blatantly if we're going to stand alone, we are going to have to put in for a special rate variation.
"You cannot provide services without money,” Mr Hietbrink said, “and at the moment, councils are going downhill because they are not getting enough money.
“This council has in the old Guyra Shire a thousand kilometres of rural roads to maintain, and now you're looking at a population that's reduced if Tingha goes to 3,500. It is unsustainable.”
While some Guyra residents believe they have got nothing from the merger, Cr Murray pointed to examples where things were going well.
The Malpas Dam pipeline had guaranteed the town’s water supply, while roadworks were exactly the same as when Guyra council was running it.
Cr Murray would like to see more Guyra representation on council, so that informed local people can make decisions about the town.
"I really encourage people to stand for council,” he said.
Council’s Regional Growth Advisory Committee will meet in Guyra on Monday night to discuss the town's needs. This was planned before Thursday night's meeting.