Cr Simon Murray and Gordon Youman dispute Save Our Councils Coalition's report on merged councils

Is de-merger report a SOCC to the jaw?

The Save Our Councils Coalition, a campaign group opposing the forced council mergers, has released a financial analysis of 20 merged NSW country and metro councils - including the Armidale Regional Council - in the lead-up to Saturday's state election.

A Sea of Red Ink, conducted by SOCC president and certified accountant Brian Halstead, calls the mergers "a failed social and financial concept". The study concludes that because the government's amalgamation proposals were misleading, communities in amalgamated councils have the right to return to their old councils.

Save and Grow Guyra hope to use the report to support their de-merger campaign; they believe a Coalition defeat on Saturday will bring back the old Guyra shire.

"It reiterates the issue out there with this whole forced amalgamations of councils right across the state," the group's Gordon Youman said. "It's not working..."

The group will collect survey forms gauging residents' support for de-merger, which JPs will count on Sunday.

Armidale Regional Council mayor Simon Murray, however, thought the report was misleading, and that de-merger proponents are crying for the moon.

"How can Guyra return to their old council?" he asked. "With Tingha going to Inverell (and it was their choice), there is no 'old Guyra'."

READ ALSO:

Political

SOCC is urging voters to put the National Party last at the election. The Coalition oversaw the forced mergers in 2016, as part of their Fit for the Future scheme. Labor, the Greens, and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party have all promised to support de-mergers if residents want it.

Save and Grow Guyra's Gordon Youman.

Save and Grow Guyra's Gordon Youman.

"The politicians and ratepayers have got to say: Look, there was no proof this was going to work, we were hoodwinked," Mr Youman said. "It's the same story with all these mergers, even the ones in Queensland; that's why they're trying to get out."

The SOCC report claims that the state government misjudged the effect of the mergers on the local electorates, leading to large voting swings against the Coalition.

"I have talked to a large number of Guyra residents," Cr Murray said, "and I do not believe there will be a large swing away from the local member due to the merger. Saturday's results will tell!"

Armidale Regional Council mayor Simon Murray.

Armidale Regional Council mayor Simon Murray.

Council representation

Smaller communities, the SOCC report alleges, have lost local representation and governance. Guyra has a population of 2000-odd, compared to Armidale's 24,000. Of the 11 councilors, only the mayor is from Guyra.

"How can Guyra get a fair go?" Mr Youman asked. "There's no transparency; no representation; nothing. It's not to bash council, or anything like that; it's just reality."

The 11 councillors are elected from across the council region on a straight voting process, Cr Murray responded.

Council is very conscious of the need to represent and service Guyra residents and commerce as part of its services to the overall region, a spokesperson said. When sworn in, councillors swear to represent and lead the whole region, not just where they live. Residents from throughout the region can hold any and all councillors to account.

For Guyra to have greater representation, more people from Guyra need to nominate and get the votes. If Guyra people are not elected, then residents need to approach members of the elected team to press their issues.

"Interestingly, none of the Guyra de-merge proponents put their hand up at the elections in 2017 for ARC to represent their community," Cr Murray said. "They need to be held to account for not standing up and supporting their community."

Financial

Merged councils, the SOCC report argues, are not saving NSW the $2 billion over 20 years then-premier Mike Baird promised, based on an (as yet unreleased) KPMG study.

"Three years has been quite ample for them to show progress," Mr Youman said. "It's going in reverse, and that's our concern. Even Armidale residents ought to be concerned; they too have been pulled into this forced amalgamation. Where is it going?"

Councils, a table shows, are tens of millions of dollars behind results achieved by the former stand-alone councils; General Funds have a deficit of $48 million, and consolidated funds $47.5 million.

The Armidale Regional Council is listed, with its projected deficit of $3.8 million. Council has since reduced the deficit to $483,000.

Mr Youman is concerned that important services are going to suffer. "If the budget's running tight, the council's going to look at what they can cut back," he said.

Armidale Regional Council, Cr Murray responded, has improved its financial position significantly over time, and will continue to do so as it merges council's operations and systems.

"There have been a number of areas where the finances have been improved, but no services have been reduced."

The projected deficit, a council spokesman said, has been reduced by removing duplicated functions, redundant processes, and integrated systems as a result of the merger; while technology helps with general efficiencies and cost-cutting.

Council also realised higher than expected levels of grant funding and income from user charges and fees in 2018/19.

Some non-essential projects and works from across Council's scope have also been deferred to improve the financial position and financial sustainability.

The SOCC report also claimed that councils aren't delivering financial reports to show how, or if they're meeting proposal results; record-keeping and new financial mega council data are inadequate.

"This is false," Cr Murray stated, "as we do report our financials and they are audited. How could SOCC get the data on page 17 if we did not report our financials?"

An open report on the merger's progress will go to the council next Wednesday.

The report, moreover, failed to show the benefits Guyra residents enjoy, Cr Murray said. These include improved water and waste water services; road upgrades; waste and recycling services; youth, Aboriginal, and volunteer services; and access to Armidale Library and museums.

Water

Guyra's biggest benefit from the council merger, Cr Murray said, was the Guyra to Malpas Dam pipeline, which couldn't have been achieved under the previous shire.

Mr Youman doubts whether it will solve our town's water problems. The water goes through a powdered activation carbon unit, but Armidale replaced theirs with an ozonation and biological filtration process to remove algal toxins, tastes, and smells. Would this unit be adequate?

"The system we have here is pretty archaic," Mr Youman said. "It comes back to representation. If we're paying big money up here for rates, we deserve something in the way of this water supply being upgraded, especially when the local member said it will solve all of Guyra's water problems. It won't."

Water supplied in Guyra meets the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, a council spokersperson said. If customers experience dirty water at any time, they should contact council on 1300 136 833 (24 hours).

Activated carbon was used successfully at Armidale Water Treatment Plant to treat tastes and odours for many years before the ozone plant was built in 2008. Use of ozone in municipal water supply is unusual in Australia.

An activated carbon unit is used to treat the water from Guyra's two dams, like many plants in Australia, and is included in the Malpas pipeline design.

Rates

Mr Youman also worries that rates will increase. Guyra rates, he claims, were 10 per cent cheaper than Armidale before the merger: water rates were $1.88 pre-merger, and are $2.05 now; wheelie bins were $5, and $13 now.

Council is looking at the harmonisation of rates and at a fair and equitable way of implementing consistent rate levels throughout the region, a spokesperson said.

A de-merger, Cr Murray said, would leave roughly 900 ratepayers to meet all the financial requirements of council, such as wages and operations. "With that number of ratepayers, there would have to be a very large rate rise."

Smaller councils in the region - including Uralla, even with a population twice the size of a 'new' Guyra - are struggling financially. They had been financially sustainable when mergers were being considered, but are now looking to obtain substantial special rate variations to increase their rates income.

"While they were not included in any merger," the spokesperson said, "their experiences would indicate Armidale Regional Council is in a stronger financial position than those local governments."

The only increase in Armidale Regional Council general rates since the merger have been rate peg increases as Council has been required to freeze rating levels under the merged council requirements.

"The reality is and always has been that the rate pegging in NSW does not meet the Consumer Price Index," Cr Murray said. "Consequently the rate of income growth to council does not meet the expenditure growth. There may need to be a rate rise in the future; however, it will be a number of years before this would occur, if it does."

The Guyra water consumption charges have increased in line with the following table since 2016/17:

Guyra Residential & Commercial Consumption Stepped Tariff Stepped

  • 0 to 100 kilolitres: 1.65 (2016/17); 1.65 (2017/18); 2.05 (2018/19)
  • 101 to 250 kilolitres: 1.97 (2016/17); 1.97 (2017/18); 2.40 (2018/19)
  • above 250 kilolitres: 2.08 (2016/17); 2.08 (2017/18); 2.60 (2018/19)
  • All figures $/Kilolitre

The annual water access charge decreased by $100 from $320 in 2017/18 to $220 in 2018/19 to offset the increase in water consumption charges between 2017/18 and 2018/19.

The changes, council said, ensure that charging for water is based on a user pays system to help conserve water resources.

Council said that rates for domestic waste collection services have been increased over the last three years, but not the 260 per cent hike Mr Youman suggested.

Guyra Domestic Waste Management Charges

  • Domestic waste - 240lt service: $440.00 (2016/17); $448.00 (2017/18); $470.00 (2018/19)
  • Domestic waste - 140lt service: $267.00 (2016/17); $272.00 (2017/18); $280.00 (2018/19)
  • Vacant domestic waste management charge: $62.50 (2016/17); $64.00 (2017/18); $84.00 (2018/19)

Previously, some sections of semi-rural roads received a waste (red lid) bin collection but not a recycling service. After the amalgamation, all residents who receive a waste collection also receive a recycling service. The waste and recycling collection area was also extended in some rural areas.