Dungog and Port Stephens councils hold merger talks

Dungog Mayor Tracy Norman, left, in front of one of Dungog’s many wooden bridges, which contribute to the council’s substantial infrastructure maintenance backlog.DUNGOG ratepayers arefacinga substantial rise in rates over the coming years after their council’s initial approach to Port Stephens Council to reinvigorate the push for a council merger was rebuffed.

The mayors of both councils confirmed that a meeting was held at the Port Stephens council chambers on Monday, with adelegation from Dungog presentingPort Stephens councillors with afinancial synopsispromoting a merger.

The previouscouncil proposed a merger with Dungog in February last year, butPort Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer said there was no longer an appetite on the Port side tomerge.Cr Palmer said there was room, however, for exploring the potential for shared services between the two organisations, starting with information technology (IT) systems.

Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer

Dungog Mayor Tracy Norman, who led her shire’s delegation, said Dungog ratepayers had been asked their views on a merger at the September local government elections that voted in a new council.

“In that ballot,54 per cent of residents asked us to enter into discussions with Port Stephens Council,” Cr Norman said.

“And this was a meeting that we requested to take their pulse to see whether they had an appetite for a merger.

“I had previously held informal talks with the Port Stephens Mayor, Cr Palmer, and it became evident that if there was not an appetite for a merger, then there was a shared services model that we could develop. They are happy with that idea. It was a very amicable meeting in a good neighbourhood spirit. We both want the best for our own communities.”

Dungog council was involved in threemerger proposals as part of the Coalition state government’s Fit for the Future local government reforms, which have proved to be one of its most controversial policies.

Reacting to an electoral backlash, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced an end to forced mergers in regional NSW in February this year, just a month after replacing Mike Baird in the state’s top job.

After initially saying she would move ahead with forced mergers of Sydney councils, that policy, too, was scrapped five months later, in July.

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The Coalition had been working on local government reform since its election in 2011, starting witha three-year review of local government and the involvement of the state’s main regulator, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, in working out which councils were financially“fit for the future”.

In October 2015, the tribunal recommended that Dungog merge with Maitland, saying both councils were unfit to stand alone. Then, two months later, in December, the government proposed a merger of Dungog and Gloucester councils: Gloucester was later absorbed into the newMid Coast Council with Taree and Great Lakes.

Then, in February 2016, Port Stephens–in a move to counter a proposed merger with Newcastle–applied to merge with Dungog.

Although an immediate decision on Dungog council’s future was averted by the scrapping of forced mergers, the council remains in a difficult financial position.

Cr Norman confirmed the council had run deficit budgets for a number of years, and a substantial rate rise would be needed if it was to eat into its infrastructure backlog.

Council papers show that an“improvement plan” on the books last year proposed an increase in general rates of 13 per cent a year for six years–a cumulative rise of 108 per cent–to meet the government’s Fit for the Future benchmarks.

On this, Cr Norman said:“We had been asked to fill in a proposal to make us Fit for the Future by 2020 and as a result of that, we would have had to have that sort of rate increase to get to that position of meeting their benchmarks.

“But I think the government realises this is a hard thing to do, and larger time frame is a better idea.”

An“overview” document from Dungog’s perspective, distributed at Monday’s meeting, said the state would likely contribute $15 million in grants to a merged council.

Dungogwas“working on new revenue streams” and was reviewing its Section 94 developer contributions plan, which“will allow us to access more funds towards site-specific projects”.

A rural lands strategy was“imminent”.

“We will be taking a special rates variation to our community early next year and will apply for this to come into effect in the 2019-2020 financial year.”

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