Forced merger experiment has failed

Forced merger experiment has failed

Sir,- It is now over a year since the Snowy Valleys Council came into being, forced on the residents of Tumbarumba, Rosewood, Khancoban, Jingellic and the rural areas in between by the Liberal Baird/Berejiklian government. It is now clear that the “experiment” of forced council amalgamations has failed, and may well have been illegal anyway. If it continues it risks the future of our communities.

Save Tumbarumba Shire has until now steadfastly avoided publicly criticizing the Council. We have concentrated our efforts to restore our Shire by working through the State government, which inflicted this disaster upon us. We felt that the new councillors and their staff deserved recognition for standing up to lead their community and should be given the opportunity to prove their value.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the council has failed to understand the nature of the communities of the southern half of the area they govern. It is also obvious that they lack the skills and insight to provide either leadership or management to their Council area residents.

Rhetoric or truth? A useful benchmark is to measure council performance against the stated goals of amalgamation. One of these was that amalgamation was supposed to provide economies of scale, to drive down rates and charges, and to improve services.

The former Tumbarumba Shire rates for farms and businesses were 30% lower than in Tumut Shire. Rate “harmonisation” will happen in 2020/21, and for the same year, SVC has included a 10% Special Rate Variation in its Long Term Financial Plan. The result: Tumbarumba Shire residents face a massive rate hike.

Tumbarumba Shire never pursued a Special Rate Variation. SVC in contrast is seeking one as soon as it is legal. The mayor is on record as saying that it is essential.

Since the forced merger, more than 100 charges to Tumbarumba Shire residents have been increased by more than 50% or have been introduced where there were no charges before the merger.

The Council intends to apply development charges from the former Tumut shire to the former Tumbarumba Shire. The result: development will become financially unviable. Sewer development of $5250 per lot and land and water development charges of $5790 to $6950 per lot will apply. There are also developer charges for roads, ranging from $4000 to $15,000 per lot, and for open space of $1400 to $1760 per lot. No charges were levied in the former Tumbarumba Shire.

So lets be clear: the Snowy Valleys Council has achieved exactly the reverse of the Berejiklian government´s stated purpose for the forced mergers. And it’s really going to hurt.

But wait, there´s more. The delivery of projects across our Shire verges on catastrophic. The Caravan Park development Stage 1 (worker accommodation) has stalled, with harvest season rapidly approaching (again). There appears to be no plan to pursue Stage 2, the facilities critical to support tourism growth.

Other projects with clear outcomes agreed with the community under the former Tumbarumba Shire are now in limbo, including Snowview Estate and the Active Care Units.

There is no funding in the Council budget for the crucial Destination Management Plan, or the Economic Development Strategy.

There is no funding for any (yes, any) capital development projects. And they have only provided for 70% of the costs for asset renewal, something they have to cover by law.

To top it all off, the SVC Long Term Financial Plan shows deficits for the coming nine years, only to miraculously jump into surplus in Year 10. Sounds a bit like the Federal Budget roundabout! Of course, these figures don’t include random brain farts like the MPC (an additional $500,000 loss per year) or swimming pools (an additional $120,000 loss per year). In short, we’re screwed.

And so we come to the infamous Multi-Purpose Centre debacle.

Councillors voted twice to progress the proposal before bringing it to the public. When we were eventually asked what we thought about the project, we told them, only to have our views utterly dismissed.

At the Tumbarumba consultation, the SVC Director of Infrastructure encouraged everyone to submit their views online via the Councils “Your Voice” website. Despite the absurd and unnecessary 100-word limit, we did so in droves. In the report to Council however, our submissions were not regarded as “formal” (of which there were only six, and five of those were against the project!). The treatment of online submissions alone is worth a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman. Either you treat all submissions equally or you suffer the consequences.

We then find the staff report to the Council Meeting in September trying to justify the project by saying that it was in the Community Strategic Plan. Let´s just check that out.

CSP Outcome 2028

Theme 5: Our Infrastructure

Delivery Outcomes

5.2: Provide well-maintained, safe, vibrant and accessible community spaces and facilities

Operational Actions

5.2.3: Undertake a study to determine infrastructure improvements needed to support large scale event attraction, etc.

A reasonable person would understand those statements as asking the council to determine the necessary infrastructure needs, not to proceed with a massive project without having done the study to determine what facilities are necessary. It’s just absurd or gross overreach to think otherwise.

The CSP identifies the main priorities and aspirations for the future of the local government area. The NSW Government’s IPR manual says that “the community engagement process for the CSP should have provided council with a clear view of what the community wants for its future and what its priorities are.” It is clear that the Council has failed to understand those views.

So where do we stand? There has been a total absence of any attempt by staff or councillors to address the financial consequences of this project, or the genuine concerns expressed in the overwhelming majority of submissions. We have been fed lines from councillors to the effect that depreciation is just a book entry (factually incorrect, Cr Larter, it’s real money you need to find each year), that we can catch the CountryLink bus to Tumut to use the pool, and that we should ´get on board for the journey´ (anther gem from Cr. Larter). No Mr. Larter, we will not! This project stinks; it has the potential to bankrupt your Council, and you will take the responsibility. But we will not go down with your ship.

The litany of woes continues. There is continuing attrition of staff and loss of senior positions from the Tumbarumba Office. We hear of appalling morale, retribution against staff who complain, and of dreadful behaviour. And now the Council is embarking on a “Service Level Review” project. They didn’t listen to our views on the CSP, or the Destination Management Plan, or the Tourism branding effort. Why would we trust them to listen to what we think about their service delivery? Haven´t they heard what we think? Some people might think it’s just an excuse for raising rates or lowering service levels.

What does this all add up to? A simple reality: that the situation can only be rectified by a complete, urgent, and rapid demerger of the Snowy Valleys Council. The Tumbarumba community no longer has confidence in Snowy Valleys Council, and as time goes by, every decision they make only reinforces that view.

A large contingent of Save Tumbarumba Shire volunteers is heading to Albury on Monday, October 22 to ask the NSW Local Government Association delegates to condemn the Berejiklian government´s actions on forced council mergers. We hope to meet Minister Upton to ask her what has happened to our proposal to demerge, as she hasn’t even bothered to acknowledge that she even received it. But that´s just par for the course.

There are still a couple of seats on the bus, so if you can come call Lucy or drop into Tumbarumba Outfitters and see if there is still space. It will be a great day!

Yours,

Neil Hamilton, Lucy Henderson and Doug Gee, Save Tumbarumba Shire Inc.