Residents of Blayney Shire would have learned over the past few weeks that the recent IPART report released by the NSW Government assessed Blayney Shire Council as being ‘Not Fit’ despite meeting the financial sustainability criteria.
In regards to our neighbouring Councils, Oberon, Orange City and Cabonne Shire were similarly assessed as ‘Not Fit’ whilst Bathurst Regional Council and Cowra were both deemed ‘Fit’.
Both Blayney and Oberon did not satisfy the scale and capacity criterion due to their low population forecast of 7,800 and 4,950 by 2031, respectively. The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) accepted the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel (ILGRP) Report ‘rule of thumb’ that a population close to or greater than 10,000 by 2031 was required to have ‘sufficient scale to deliver services efficiently to the community’ and to ‘partner effectively with government’.
Cabonne and Orange did not satisfy the scale and capacity criterion because neither demonstrated their stand-alone proposal was at least as good as or better than the ILGRP preferred option for these Councils to merge.
Consultation Period closes 18 November 2015
The NSW Government has announced a final period of consideration on the Fit for the
Future reform program, which will close on Wednesday 18 November 2015.
Council has been invited to participate in this process which has the following purpose:
- to provide any comments Council wish to make in relation to IPART’s findings on Blayney’s submission; and
- to advise of any preferences Blayney Shire Council may have regarding merging partners.
The NSW Government will respond to the IPART report, making its final decision and releasing its plan for the future of Local Government in NSW by the end of the year.
It is anticipated that this announcement will be made by early to mid-December.
What has Council been doing?
Councillors have been meeting weekly since the release of the IPART report to consider the options, weigh up the risks, challenges and benefits of being part of a large regional Council versus the stand-alone option.
There are many social, cultural and community based issues of a potential merger which Councillors and senior staff have been addressing over the past few weeks.
These include local representation, autonomy of our Town and Village/Progress Associations, the Council governance model, Shire of Villages branding, Council rates and service levels, staff and local employment, doing business with Council and the retention of Depot and Council Offices.
This is a very important strategic decision for our community and we are not taking it lightly.
In the meantime, all staff have been focussing on a business as usual approach undertaking the many projects underway, including some major capital works programs and continuing to deliver services to the community.
Preferred Merger Partners – Cabonne Shire and Orange City
Blayney Shire Council recognises that there are communities of interest that either favour or oppose a merger depending on which direction we move, be that Cowra, Orange or Bathurst. This is very complex.
We cannot discount the terrific working relationship that we have already developed with Cabonne Council over the past 10 years of the WBC Alliance. And we must appreciate the existing linkages and work undertaken in our tourism promotion and economic development activities with both Cabonne and Orange. We have far more in common with Orange and Cabonne than not.
This is also the preferred option of the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel which recommended the merger of Orange City and Cabonne Shire and/or Blayney Shire.
With this in mind, a potential local government area that encompasses Orange City, Cabonne and Blayney Shire Councils provides an opportunity to become a strong regional force.
You may well be asking why is Council considering a merger when we submitted a proposal to stand-alone?
Essentially the goal posts have moved and IPART has assessed Blayney as being ‘Not Fit’ despite meeting the financial sustainability criteria. Councillors believe that it is now clear that the NSW Government has an agenda for reform and that this reform will include Council amalgamations. On the positive side, should a merger proceed, we will be deemed ‘Fit’, which would enable the streamlining of grant funding, and access to the NSW Government borrowing facility for fast tracking of major capital improvement works.
What is also evident is that capital funding from the Federal and State Governments will be regionally focussed and population-based. So coming together has to benefit the advancement of our major roadworks, infrastructure upgrades and sporting facilities by attracting future funding opportunities to improve our local community and region.
What about our Villages and local representation?
There are a number of community concerns to be addressed, including support of our rural and agricultural areas, historic villages, Council rates, staffing levels and Councillor representation to maintain an effective local voice.
The promotion and importance that Blayney Shire has placed on our villages and towns having distinctive branding and local autonomy is a feature that we believe can be enhanced in a larger area.
If a merger was to proceed, Councillors will be investigating options to ensure that the new entity comprises a designated number of elected representatives from each of the former local government areas.
Councillors believe that, under the circumstances, it is in the best interests of residents to embrace change. As part of this change, we are therefore strongly advocating the creation of a Transition Committee involving Mayors, Councillors and General Managers to enable collaboration between partners and facilitate community input. It is critically important that we are pro-active in this process influencing how the new Council might look and feel from the start.
By being pro-active, we are confident that we will retain our local culture and sense of community whilst having the support of State and Federal Governments.
Staff/Council Offices and Depot
In regards to the staffing issues, in the event of a Council merger, the Local Government Act extends a number of employment guarantees for Council staff. This includes preservation of regular staff numbers pre-merger in rural centres of less than 5,000 people. Staff will still be employed locally to deliver local services.
The current Blayney Shire Council Office and Works Depot would be essential for the successful operation of a new regional Council.
What about my Council rates?
Councillors agree that rates, fees, charges and service levels will remain as per the current individual Councils2015/16 Operational Plan and the adopted Delivery Plans.
The main task of a new Council would be to undertake a full Service Level Review.
Whilst overall income from rates would increase with normal rate peg increases as set by IPART, generally moving with the CPI Index, any rate rise above that would require a special project or changes in service levels and then agreement by the community. Council will be pressing for preservation of the existing relativities between rating categories for all ratepayers in any enlarged Council area.
There is significant funding on the table for local Councils to consider. This funding includes a Merger Implementation Grant, the Stronger Communities Fund and recently announced NSW Government administered loan borrowing facility for local government.
As it stands rural/regional Councils which merge will have access to:
Merger Implementation Grant
Stronger Communities Fund
$5 million or $10 million (3+ LGAs merging)
The Stronger Communities Fund may be used for roads, bridges, swimming pools, sporting facilities, parks, footpaths, libraries and other community infrastructure.
The Merger Implementation Grant may be used for those expenses associated with the merger of 2 or more organisations such as financial accounting software, telephone and IT systems, branding and signage. What this means is that if a merger was to proceed, it would be at no cost to the ratepayer.
The above funding for a merger being implemented is predicated on the merger proposal having been:
- agreed by each Council merger partner;
- approved by NSW Government; and
- submitted by the 18 November 2015.
In addition there is a new State Government borrowing facility administered by NSW Treasury (TCorp) which is offering 10 year loans for capital infrastructure projects. To access this facility, a Council must be Fit. It was confirmed that if Blayney Shire Council was to merge and therefore achieve scale and capacity by the new Council population being >10,000 then the new Council would be deemed Fit and therefore be eligible to access the TCorp Loan Borrowing Facility.
However, this should not be the reason to merge, and when put into context is only part of the equation. In essence, whilst a share of $10 million to spend on community infrastructure sounds terrific, Council views this as a minor factor for consideration.
What does it look like if we stand alone?
Blayney Shire Council is currently financially sustainable. This is substantially due to the rates received from our mining industry which contributes approximately 50% of our total rates income.
Council delivers services to the community very efficiently at the moment. At stake is the future capacity of a small organisation to deliver these services in the future.
Our position becomes untenable if Bathurst Regional Council becomes even bigger, if there are boundary adjustments not in our favour to the south into Cowra, or if Orange City and Cabonne Shire merge without us.
Given the pressures on the Federal and State Government and demands for competing interests of health, education and welfare budgets; the Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs) program is expected to decline in the long term. FAGs account for nearly 12% of our income as well as ongoing programs that we depend on to improve our infrastructure. Without these injections of cash, Blayney Shire Council simply will struggle to meet your expectations in the future.
Regional growth will be achieved by those organisations with the capacity to leverage against a bigger budget and greater population base to attract capital funding and spread the cost of major infrastructure projects. Blayney needs to be part of and benefit from this investment into the region.
What actually happens, how and when?
Council mergers are by proclamation from the Governor of NSW and legislation contained within the Local Government Act. Essentially the merger proposal can be initiated by the Minister for Local Government and this is expected to happen before Christmas this year.
A proposal for a merger is then referred the Boundaries Commission for examination and report.
The Boundaries Commission has then 40 days to hold an inquiry, giving reasonable notice and allowing members of the public to provide feedback to the proposed merger.
So we would expect the consultation period to be from late December 2015 to early February 2016.
The Boundaries Commission report would be anticipated to be back to the Government by mid-February 2016 when the Minister, unless the decision changes, recommends to the Governor that the proposal be implemented and a proclamation gazetted. The pre-merger areas are dissolved and new entity is constituted as at the date established in the proclamation.
An Administrator and Acting General Manager are appointed, however the proclamation can state that the Councillors remain in office until the September 2016 elections. Similarly the proclamation stipulates arrangements and potential roles for the current General Managers and any designated senior staff (Directors on contract) until the new organisational structure is adopted.
We are seeking your Feedback
Councillors are working very hard to talk to as many community members and groups before the next Council meeting on Monday 16 November at 6pm at the Blayney Shire Community Centre when this matter will be considered. Unfortunately we have only until 18 November 2015 to advise the State Government of our preferences regarding merger partners.
In the meantime we have been getting the message out by issuing press releases to all media including the Blayney Chronicle, attending as many Town and Village Association meetings as possible, using our website and Facebook; and now this shire wide newsletter and advertisement.
Councillors remain steadfast that we are not interested in proceeding unless the merger includes both Cabonne Shire and Orange City Councils.
Your feedback is encouraged and invited. Please call any one of your local Councillors.
Councillor Scott Ferguson Ph 6368 2221 Mobile 0418 637 828
Mayor Blayney Shire Council
Councillor Geoff Braddon (OAM) Ph 6367 3139 Mobile 0457 898 063
Councillor Allan Ewin Ph 6366 5096 Mobile 0408 200 658
Councillor David Kingham Ph 6367 5110 Mobile 0437 865 178
Councillor Shane Oates Ph 6368 4262 Mobile 0428 687 493
Councillor Kevin Radburn Ph 6368 8599 Mobile 0421 238 967
Councillor David Somervaille Ph 6368 2639 Mobile 0419 803 153
Download the PDF version of the Mayors Message