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Hilltops Council is one of the NSW councils facing a bill for its merger. Pic: Facebook.

 

The NSW government has left some councils with hefty bills to pay since their forced amalgamations in May last year.

Government News understands that mergers have ended up costing some NSW councils more than the state government merger and transition funding they were given.

Rural and regional councils, in particular, are resentful because they received only half of what metropolitan councils were given to cover the process and yet they often receive much less from rates and have lower reserves.

Rural and regional councils received $5 million for each merger, while metropolitan councils were handed $10 million for their mergers under the state government’s New Council Implementation Fund (NCIF).

But there were caveats. The funding could only be used for certain things, such as getting expert advice and integrating IT systems, but not to pay ongoing staff costs or council administrators, who replace councillors and mayors until the local government elections in September.

Councils were also given between $10 to $15 million of Stronger Communities funding to go towards community projects and infrastructure.

Despite the funding, some councils are finding there is a reality gap.

Hilltops Council, a merger between Boorowa, Harden and Young Councils in the South West Slopes of the state, estimates that it will end up spending $6.5 million on its merger, a shortfall of $1.5 million.

Greens MP and Local Government Spokesperson David Shoebridge said residents of the three former council areas would be ‘shaking their heads’ at the figures and wondering where the $1.5 million extra would come from.

“Every independent expert said at the start of this process that amalgamations would be more expensive and more disruptive than the government pretended, and now we are seeing this come true,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“The incompetence of the Coalition is really staggering, and now they are expecting residents in the local councils they have destroyed to meet the cost of their failure.”

Hilltops General Manager Anthony McMahon said he did not understand the logic behind giving rural and regional councils significantly less funding to cover their merger costs than their metro counterparts.

“In our case, we’ve been responsible for bringing three councils together that are geographically separated,” Mr McMahon said.

“We’re also a water utility and we have additional constraints in relation to having two former councils with populations under 5,000, which means we have to comply with Section 218CA of the Local Government Act.  These factors are not a consideration for metro councils.”

The council will finalise its transitional costs and then consider whether to lobby the state government for the money.

“We’re focused on ensuring Hilltops Council is adequately resourced to complete the merger process, and will be making representations to Minister Upton accordingly,” Mr McMahon said.

“We’ve made clear our determination in ensuring the community does not pay for merger-related costs.”

But it is not only regional councils who have been left to pick up the tab for the mergers most of them fought hard against.

Sydney’s Northern Beaches Council, an amalgam of Manly, Pittwater and Warringah Councils, received $10 million for its upfront merger costs and has only $105,000 left in the kitty.

The council’s biggest outlays were $2.5 million for staff redundancies and $2.8 million for system integration.

Northern Beaches Council acknowledges it faces further restructuring costs in the draft of its 2017-2018 Operational Plan.

“It is recognised that council will incur further restructuring costs such as the cost of integration, aligning positions within the new organisational structure and new salary system which will exceed the funding provided,” says the plan.

“Accordingly the Long Term Financial Plan has been prepared on the basis that once the NCIF has been fully utilised, existing budgets will firstly be used to pay for those merger and transition costs not funded through this mechanism prior to the identification of net savings.”

Brian Halstead President of Save Our Councils Coalition, a community group against forced council mergers, said a funding shortfall had always been on the cards.

“The amount that the government allowed was based on the KPMG report, which under costed amalgamations and because they’re not allowing councils to book the ongoing staff costs and administrators against the funding,” Mr Halstead said.

He said some council staff were spending 25 per cent of their time managing the merger process, including harmonising service delivery and staff pay and conditions, and that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian should stump up the extra cash.

“If I was a ratepayer, I would be thinking that these amalgamations have been forced on them by state government. It’s only reasonable that the state government bear the costs of amalgamation but I doubt any of the administrators will [ask] because they’re paid public servants.”

Local Government NSW (LGNSW) President Keith Rhoades said he was not surprised that merger costs had exceeded the funding available.

“LGNSW, along with a number of academics and other experts, argued strongly throughout the process that there was a strong potential for additional costs,” Mr Rhoades said.

“It was always clear that the cost of individual amalgamations would vary from council to council depending on readiness, systems compatibility, staff skills etc and in fact this is one reason why forced amalgamations can be more difficult than those that are achieved voluntarily, after extensive meaningful consultation.”

Roberta Ryan, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, said it was hard to predict the cost of mergers but the state government had given it their best shot at trying to work it out from past experience.

She said the cost of mergers would depend partly upon the extent of co-operation between councils before they merged, for example through shared IT systems and services and the level of regulatory harmony in an area.

“I understand there has been a shortfall for a number of councils,” Ms Ryan said.

“Many regional and rural councils would have found it harder and more expensive because the amount [they were given] was less and some of them may not have been working towards some of these things that some of the metro councils were.”

The ability of new councils to absorb any cost blowout was highly variable, she said.

“Some councils have good reserves but some of the smaller ones are very strapped financially.”

Asked when the true costs and savings from mergers would be known she said: “Not ever - as we don’t have the base line data available - there can be overall benefits and improvements - that may have happened even if the amalgamations didn’t happen.”

The Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) would not say whether any NSW councils had approached Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton to fund the shortfall or whether the government would act, should this occur.

The DPC statement would only say:

“The NSW Government has provided an unprecedented level of support to new local councils.

“The NSW Government provided new councils with $375 million to implement the mergers and kick start investment in new services and infrastructure for their residents.

“New councils in regional areas received $5 million to cover the costs of merging, as well as $10 million for a merger of two councils or $15 million for a merger of three councils, which is to be used for community, services and infrastructure projects.”
                    [post_title] => NSW councils fork out for forced mergers as government funding dries up
                    [post_excerpt] => Councils could petition Berejiklian for shortfall.
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                    [post_content] => 

 

 

NSW largest council has rebranded itself with the help of more than 2,000 ratepayers and hit back at perceptions that it is boring.

Canterbury-Bankstown Council, which was created in May last year from a merger between Canterbury City and Bankstown City Councils, launched its new logo and slogan: ‘where interesting happens’ yesterday (Monday) and released a video to accompany it.

The south-western Sydney council is the state’s largest council area and has around 350,000 residents.

The council’s administrator, Richard Colley, said that residents, community and sports groups and business leaders had all chipped in their thoughts on the rebranding and so had visitors, through workshops, interviews, surveys and roundtables.

Mr Colley said the council involved the community from the outset so that they could 'own and be proud of' the rebranding, which reportedly cost $375,000.

“It’s not every day you get to stop and think about what defines you as a place and community – we know we are multiculturally diverse, and that’s very important, but what really defines us and sets us apart from other areas and the pack,” Mr Colley said. 

“It’s based on the idea “Where Interesting Happens” and will allow us to promote our fascinating stories, unique experiences and much more.”

The council’s survey of ratepayers found they wanted the area to become a destination where people stopped, rather than drove through; they were proud of diversity and wanted to project a more confident image.

Mr Colley said residents would see the new brand popping up in the area from this week on signs, council vehicles and PR material and that various related events would follow.

“Our new city brand is about sharing what makes us special and uniting the two great cities of Canterbury and Bankstown.  It’s much more than just a logo, it’s a whole new destination marketing approach for everyone to join in, including residents, businesses, community groups, cultural institutions, sporting groups and visitors.”

But the rebranding was not just about what people who live or work in the area thought.  

Mr Colley said: “We also wanted to understand what people outside Canterbury-Bankstown think of us, so we can attract them to our many businesses, places and activities, and help grow our local economy.”

Focus groups and online surveys of around 500 Sydneysiders from outside the Canterbury Bankstown area found that some of them had negative perceptions that there was not enough to do there.

“The research showed some Sydneysiders don’t visit Canterbury-Bankstown because they think there’s not much to do here.  Well, that’s about to change!

“Interestingly, we also heard, some people living in our City believe other Sydneysiders think Canterbury-Bankstown is unsafe.  We found this is not the case at all,” he said. 

It’s early days but the reaction on social media have been mostly positive so far, apart from one or two digs at the council’s slogan and social media hashtag.

One Facebook wag said the hashtag should be #whereoverdevelopmenthappens or #whereinfrastructureisneeded, while another criticised the slogan: “ ‘Where Interesting Happens’ isn't even a grammatically correct sentence! But then neither is ‘Think Different’ and that worked for Apple. Good luck with the new initiative.”

CEO of Chess Engineering Steve Facer, who was involved in the consultation, said the process had “captured an honest and real feel of locals and non-residents”.

 “They were unafraid to face whatever realities may present themselves and then have the courage to address them in an open-faced and positive way,” Mr Facer said. 

“The new direction seems highly inclusive. It already has, and will continue to generate energy for a ‘can do’ area that may now start to evolve at an ever increasing rate.  I loved the bold simplicity of the package.”

 

What do you think of the rebranding?

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                    [post_title] => Merged Sydney council rebrands itself as the place "where interesting happens”
                    [post_excerpt] => Hits back at critics it’s boring.

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                    [post_content] =>  

Independent candidate for the North Shore, Carolyn Corrigan (centre, blue dress).
Pic: Facebook.

 

 

A staunch anti-council merger campaigner will take on the Liberals at the North Shore by-election on April 8 in an attempt to repeat the shock upset at November’s Orange by-election, when the Nationals lost a safe seat.  

Carolyn Corrigan, a Mosman councillor and past President of anti-council merger community group Save Our Councils Coalition, will stand as an independent candidate in former NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner’s seat following the veteran MP’s resignation last month.

Ms Skinner quit in an apparent dummy spit over losing her Health portfolio to Brad Hazzard in NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s mini Cabinet reshuffle in January. 

Ms Corrigan has begun an intensive campaign to topple the Liberals and says the reactions she has been getting on the campaign trail have convinced her that her mission is possible and that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian should be worried.

“I couldn’t tell you the number of people who say: ‘I’ve voted Liberal all my life. I’m not voting Liberal this time’,” Ms Corrigan says.

“There’s a palpable anger in this community because I think they feel they have been taken for granted.

“They should be scared,” she adds.

 



 

Ms Corrigan says she only decided to run after support for her swelled and no other independent candidates had come forward.

“It’s going to be such a short, quick campaign and I haven’t even got a Liberal candidate that I know of.

“Five [Liberal] candidates are running. It’s all caught up in the party factions at this stage, as I understand.”

The Liberal candidates believed to be in the running are: Tim James, Jessica Keen, Anna McPhee, Felicity Wilson and Ted Wziontek. Labor will not be fielding a candidate.

Meanwhile, the state government is once again trotting out plans for a tunnel under Mosman to ease the gridlock in a sign that it is nervous about the outcome of the North Shore by-election, despite its reputation as a blue-ribbon Liberal area.

Ms Corrigan says council mergers is ‘still a hot button issue’ for voters but points out that it is only one of many, including the potential B-Line bus, which she opposes because she believes the upheaval outweighs the benefits, the Mosman tunnel (she’s a fan) and overcrowded local schools.

The North Shore electorate she is battling for covers the local government areas of Mosman, Lane Cove and North Sydney. It has become a tinderbox of late as the NSW government continues to fight court cases  in an effort to forcibly merge Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby Councils and Lane Cove, Hunters Hill and Ryde Councils.

Although Ms Skinner has held the seat since 1994 the North Shore does have a history of voting independent.

Towering political figure, independent Ted Mack held the seat from 1981 to 1988 and Robyn Read held it from 1988 to 1991, after defeating Ms Skinner.

Ms Corrigan says Ms Berejiklian herself has acknowledged that politics is changing and this could favour an independent candidate.

“There’s tremendous voter apathy and cynicism and I think that [voters will support] a true independent candidate – not a dummy one – who will just look at the issues and when they vote, rather than the way the party tells them to vote," Ms Corrigan says.

Ms Corrigan, who works as a nurse in the specialist clinical areas of pulmonary hypertension and heart and lung transplantation at St Vincent's Hospital, is hoping to bring the independents back again to the North Shore. She might just do it. 

 

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                    [post_title] => Council merger protestor to contest Skinner’s North Shore seat
                    [post_excerpt] => Could Orange by-election shock repeat itself?
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Will the Liberals seize victory in Mike Baird's seat of Manly and Jillian Skinner's North Shore? Pic: Facebook.



 

 

Council anti-merger campaigners have vowed to inflict pain on the NSW Government in three upcoming by-elections, after North Shore MP and former Health Minister Jillian Skinner finally resigned officially this week.

Ms Skinner tendered her resignation to Speaker Shelley Hancock late on Monday, apparently after failing to score her beloved Health portfolio in NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s first Cabinet reshuffle at the end of January.

The NSW Electoral Commission will now set a date for three by-elections: Ms Skinner’s North Shore seat, Manly and Gosford. Manly was former NSW Premier Mike Baird’s seat and Labor MP Kathy Jackson recently quit her Gosford seat for health reasons.

All three seats have been flashpoints for local council forced merger tensions but it is debatable whether Manly and North Shore – both strong Liberal seats – will really slip from the party’s grasp.

However, the Orange by-election result in November, when Shooters Farmers and Fishers candidate Philip Donato seized the rock solid Nationals seat, will no doubt still be painfully fresh in NSW Premier Gladys Berejikilian’s mind.

Tom Sherlock from anti-merger community group Save Our Councils Coalition (SOCC) said council mergers were likely to have an influence on by-election results.

“I’ve seen some reports that say the Liberals will be massacred but I wouldn’t go quite that far. There are some people who will always vote Liberal,” Mr Sherlock said.

“My hope is that there will be some really quality debate about what communities want and what the alternatives are [to mergers].”

He said SOCC would be making sure candidate forums occurred and the group would be asking the candidates questions at forums. The group is encouraging voters to put the Liberals last in protest over forced amalgamations.

Ms Skinner’s North Shore state electorate, which covers Lane Cove, Mosman and North Sydney, is overwhelmingly Liberal territory but council mergers here have been some of the most fiercely contested.

The NSW government said this month that it will still push ahead with Sydney mergers, despite halting regional mergers, and this includes one between Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby Councils and another between Lane Cove, Hunters Hill and Ryde Councils, subject to the outcome of court cases.

The North Shore seat has a history of independents throughout the eighties and it is possible that a credible independent candidate could take the fight to the Liberals.

Mr Sherlock said Ms Skinner said she opposed local council amalgamations but ‘she never spoke out’ and that she ‘basically let the community down in a very big way’.

The Liberals could get a nasty surprise come election time, which is likely to be in late March or early April.

He said: “The Liberals have taken the North Shore for granted and they might get a big surprise. In that way it’s very similar to Orange. Orange was taken for granted by the Nationals. They brought in a candidate from outside the area and assumed people would vote National.”

Meanwhile, Manly could also give the Liberals a fright if there is a backlash against the newly created Northern Beaches Council.

Manly voters have a history of voting for independent candidates and focusing on local issues and personalities. Independents took the seat in all four elections between 1991 and 2003.

Mr Sherlock said that Pittwater residents in particular were angry over the loss of their council but he said that the majority of the electorate may still back the Liberals.

Warringah residents were more sanguine about council mergers because the former Warringah Council had a dominant role in the new council and some residents had wanted Manly Mayor Jean Hay deposed, said Mr Sherlock.

Manly residents might be more worried about other issues, such as the Western Harbour Tunnel and Northern Beaches Link.

But it is Gosford, one of state’s most marginal seats, where and the forced merger between Gosford City and Wyong Shire Councils could tip the balance against the Liberals.

Labor MP Kathy Smith narrowly beat Liberal state MP Chris Holstein in 2015 by only 203 votes. It is here where council mergers could be the difference between success or failure for the Libs. 

A spokesperson for the NSW Electoral Commission said the Commission was still waiting for the government to issue the writs for the by-elections adding that ‘there is no legislated timeframe for when a by-election has to occur’.
                    [post_title] => NSW council anti-merger campaigners plot revenge after Skinner's official resignation
                    [post_excerpt] => Third by-election triggered.
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                    [post_content] => It was hard but very effective day at work

 

Council amalgamations in NSW have created a revolving door of staff as new councils struggle to hold on to their general managers.

The game of management musical chairs has gathered pace recently and many of those parachuting belatedly into the top jobs have been from NSW Premier Mike Baird’s Northern Beaches stomping ground.

Rik Hart became the latest (interim) General Manager of Sydney’s fledging Inner West Council last week after respected GM Vanessa Chan resigned.

Hart spent ten years as one of the state’s highest paid GMs during his tenure at Warringah Council before the council merged with Pittwater and Manly and he was appointed Deputy GM of the new Northern Beaches Council, which turned out to be a brief gig.

Chan’s reasons for resigning have been kept on the down-low, although she cited “personal reasons” but bringing three councils together while keeping the new council’s daily operations going and dealing with fierce public hostility to the merger would not have been an easy task. Chan was previously GM at Ashfield Council and had notched up more than 15 years working in local government.

The inner-west merger between Ashfield, Leichhardt and Marrickville Councils has already claimed the scalps of Leichhardt GM Peter Head and Marrickville’s Brian Barrett, who both quit rather than take on a deputy GM role.

A slew of other senior staff joined them in walking out the door, including Leichhardt’s Director of Corporate Services Matthew Phillips; Marrickville’s Director of Planning and Environment Tim Moore; Director of Infrastructure Services Neil Strickland and Director of Corporate Services Steve Kludass.

The freshly minted Northern Beaches Council has haemorrhaged senior staff since the merger between Pittwater, Manly and Warringah was pushed through in May.

The mass exit is unsurprising given the council was top heavy at its inception, with an administrator, interim general manager and eight deputies.

Henry Wong quit as Deputy GM and ended up as Strathfield Council’s acting GM after spending years in the same role at Manly Council.

Other senior managers dropped in from the Northern Beaches and scattered further afield include former Warringah Council Deputy General Manager Malcolm Ryan, who left for Western Sydney to take up a job as GM at Cumberland Council – an amalgam of parts of Auburn, Holroyd and Parramatta local government areas, a contract which runs until March 2018.

Deputy GM Melinda Hewitt (previously Pittwater Council’s Deputy GM) left Northern Beaches Council in August after seven years on the peninsula, as did former deputy Stephen Clements.

CEO at Local Government Professionals Australian NSW, Annalisa Haskell said some senior managers left before they lost their jobs or had to work in a new set up they did not like under a merged council.

“There are people going everywhere,” Haskell said.

She said that movement at the top was “inevitable” following council mergers, particularly because merged councils would be creating a “new order”, which may jar with established staff.

“The leadership needs to establish a new organisation and that can be challenging if you have got the incumbents there. Change is always difficult. In any organisation there is a positive and negative.”

The situation had the potential to create conflict between general managers and their deputies, most of whom had served as GMs before the mergers.

 

Businessman standing in front of revolving door, checking time on wristwatch, picking up briefcase

 

Instability at the top has also affected those councils threatened with amalgamation but who have not yet merged. Their respective general managers are well aware that their necks are on the guillotine.

Arthur Kyron left his GM post at Waverley Council in April, citing the uncertainty created by mergers as the reason for his resignation. A proposal to merge Waverley, Randwick and Woollahra is still on the table, with Woollahra resisting. One interim GM would be appointed to oversee the transition.

Cabonne Council lost General Manager Andrew Hopkins in August after four years in the job after Hopkins said he had to think of his family and career while the merger between Cabonne, Blayney and Orange was still going through the courts.

Strathfield Council is on its fifth Acting General Manager (Henry Wong) since its long-serving General Manager David Backhouse walked out the door in February. The council remains locked in a court battle resisting the government’s proposal to merge it with Canada Bay and Burwood Councils.

Local government veteran Backhouse quit Strathfield Council after 30 years, ten spent as GM. Two other senior staff quit too: Corporate Affairs Director Neale Redman and Head of Planning David Hazaldene.

But their departures may not have been solely precipitated by amalgamations.

An October 2015 Office of Local Government investigation found that Strathfield Council spent almost $900,000 on legal services and advice from International Property Group over a four-year period and concluded that it had little to show for it.

The investigation identified ‘systemic deficiencies’ and failures in administration and slapped a performance improvement order on the council.

Not even the lower north shore has proved a safe haven for general managers. The state government’s proposal to merge Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby Councils is likely to have created a sense of unease among the people who work there.

Mosman’s GM Veronica Lee chucked in her job in August and left to become Executive Director of Corporate Service at the NSW Office of Sport. North Sydney GM Warwick Winn jumped ship for Manningham Council in suburban Melbourne in April.

President of Local Government NSW Keith Rhoades said he was aware of a great deal of movement at senior level within councils, much of it due to the uncertainty created by mergers.

“They’ve got to think about their families and their futures and their careers, if there’s a position come up that might be more secure for them. Job security is something to be treasured these days,” Rhoades said.

Haskell agreed: “When you’re in a state of unknown it’s always hard so I guess some people are changing to make active decisions about their careers. I think you would see more movement there just because of the uncertainty.”

Some managers have left councils under threat of merging for those that have already gone through the process. Haskell said: “there are opportunities coming up in merged councils for people who may be want surety.”

Lee Furness hotfooted it out of the doors as Director of Corporate Policy at Shellharbour Council (slated to merge with Wollongong) this month to become Executive Director at Hilltops Council.

Haskell said the massive personnel changes presented both opportunities and dangers.

There was a possibility the sector could lose skills and corporate memory but she said this was part of a wider trend with the retirement of baby boomers at senior level.

Another fear was that the sector could become fragmented into three: councils where there had been no change, amalgamated councils and those councils which might be merged.

“Although there were lots of little councils before it was quite cohesive,” she said. “It feels a little bit more fragmented at the moment. We have people who are not changing that are stable, groups that are waiting and people who have changed. It’s very abnormal at the moment.”

Haskell said councils were stronger when they connected and shared best practice.
                    [post_title] => Best of 2016: Musical chairs at the top for NSW local councils since mergers
                    [post_excerpt] => Northern Beaches execs go west.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_24233" align="alignnone" width="300"]Baird Maroons jersey_opt Commitments... he's made a few. pic: Facebook[/caption]

 

The Baird Government has moved to seize direct financial control of councils across New South Wales under sweeping new laws that hand ultimate power over local government spending to specially appointed “controllers”, with oversight duties handed to the State Auditor General.

Revealed in the immediate wake of this week’s NSW Budget, the new legislation — the Local Government Amendment (Governance and Planning) 2016 — proposes to impose the tightest controls yet on how elected representatives and council staff spend money and includes the right to shut out general managers from financial probes of expenditure and governance.

The new laws could also hand State Government appointed administrators the power to make ‘opt-in’ decisions on behalf of electors and elected representatives on controversial issues like the use of postal voting at merged councils thanks to the delay of polls until September 2017.

Rushed into the Legislative Assembly this week, the new controls won’t be debated until the August sitting of State Parliament but have already sent shockwaves across a sector still reeling from the sacking of 37 councils in May.

[quote]One of the legislative changes sure to raise hackles is a bid to “remove procedural requirements relating to the community strategic plan, community engagement strategy, resource ng strategy, delivery program and operational plan.”[/quote]

Local Government Minister Paul Toole is making no apologies and said the new laws make “important changes to ensure councils are always putting the interests of local communities first.”

That includes far greater powers for direct ministerial intervention.

“It will enable the Government to appoint a financial controller to councils that have a consistent record of poor financial performance and get those councils back on track,” Mr Toole said.

The hotly contested financial state and sustainability of local governments across NSW was the main trigger for forcing council amalgamations across the state, premised on the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal’s heavily disputed ‘Fit of the Future’ report card.

But many councils – amalgamated or otherwise – have attacked the financial assessments made of them in the run-up to mergers as flawed, particularly smaller and more buoyant local governments amalgamated with fiscally challenged neighbours.

 

Councils hit back

Local Government NSW (LGNSW), the peak representative body for councils in the state, is suspicious of the bid to parachute-in financial controllers as the Minister sees fit, cautioning some of the state government’s financial assessment methods simply lack credibility. “Many of these moves seem designed to establish new avenues for central oversight and control, rather than recognising that local government is an autonomous, elected sphere of government,” said LGNSW President Keith Rhoades. “There needs to be agreed parameters around the Government appointing a financial controller, and objective measures of "poorly performing" or "high financial sustainability risk" need to be established. Lack of specificity could allow the Government to apply the same discredited methods used to declare many NSW councils "not fit for the future," Cllr Rhoades said. City of Sydney Councillor Ed Mandla, a Liberal, also had reservations as the the efficacy of the new laws. "Surely the best oversight for council books is the ballot box," Cllr Mandla told Government News. [quote]"The real problem for for Councillors is if they have a problem with the GM (general manager) they have to tell the mayor and if they have a problem with the mayor they have to tell the GM — what if they are in cahoots?"[/quote]  

Questionable Timing

The latest laws are the second major tranche of legislation to hit this week, with another bill dealing with the donations and the pecuniary interests of councillors – the Local Government and Elections Legislation Amendment Integrity Bill – introduced on Budget night. The timing of the new legislation prompted Labor Opposition Leader Luke Foley to accuse Mr Toole and Premier Baird of trying to sneak through the new laws and of reneging on a promise to introduce limits on donations, especially from property developers. “Mr Baird has broken a clear and unequivocal commitment to introduce spending and donation caps for council elections,” Mr Foley said. [quote]“Caps on donations are not much use without limits on election spending. Predatory interests will be able to spend as much as they like to capture control of a local council.”[/quote] Shadow Local Government Minister Peter Primrose said while it was still too early to give a definitive assessment of the latest laws, people needed to remember that decisions at amalgamated councils – including ones that could flow from the new laws –were being made by government appointed administrators rather than councillors answerable to electors until September 2017. Mr Primrose also questioned whether the Baird Government was really committed to ensuring integrity in council decisions given Budget cuts meted out to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that had persistently uncovered graft and dodgy decisions. “The Premier who is behind this bill is also responsible for slashing staff at ICAC – one of the most important institutions that that maintains integrity in local government,” Mr Primrose told Parliament on Wednesday. Referencing State Budget papers, Mr Primrose said ICAC’s “corruption prevention presentations will drop from 160 to 100” and that the average time to deal with complaints would rise from 30 days to 42 days. "So much for promoting integrity measures,” Mr Primrose said.  

Massive Audit Office Workload

While the new legislation is yet to pass, a clear intention of the new laws is to remove the ability of councillors to appoint their own auditors and hand oversight power to the directly Auditor General. [quote]The changes mean that while the government will get a centralised and consistent view of local government finances, the Audit Office of NSW will need to compile literally hundreds of new council reports a year to perform its new duty.[/quote] A spokesperson for Mr Toole said changes brought NSW “into line with most other Australian jurisdictions and New Zealand and will provide greater consistency and certainty across the sector.” “It will also ensure that reliable financial information is available that can be used to assess councils’ performance and for benchmarking. Mr Toole’s Office also confirmed that the Auditor-General will have powers to “conduct sector-wide performance audits to identify trends and opportunities for improvement across the sector” in line with similar powers in relation to state agencies. The total cost of the audits – which are typically charged back to agencies – is still yet to be determined. A state public service source suggested that putting councils under the watch of the Auditor General was “unquestionably” the right move, but one that may not work in Macquarie Street’s favour if ministers relied on rubbery numbers. Premier Baird in February 2016 announced that Margaret Crawford,  who has been Deputy Secretary at the state’s Department of Family and Community Services, would become the new Auditor General of NSW.

Key changes as flagged by the Minister for Local Government

  • Appoint the Auditor-General as the auditor of all councils;
  • clarify roles and responsibilities of councillors, mayors, administrators and general managers;
  • introduce new guiding principles for local government;
  • improve governance of councils and professional development for councillors;
  • consolidate the ethical conduct obligations of councillors;
  • establish the framework for strategic business planning and reporting; and
  • streamline council administrative processes.
[post_title] => Best of 2016: Baird seizes financial control of NSW councils [post_excerpt] => Oversight powers sent to Auditor General. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => baird-seizes-financial-control-of-nsw-councils-under-new-laws [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-12-20 15:51:27 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-12-20 04:51:27 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24232 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 12 [filter] => raw ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 23674 [post_author] => 658 [post_date] => 2016-12-20 14:06:42 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-12-20 03:06:42 [post_content] => KPMG By Martin Bass Tuning in to the news recently it was hard to avoid the barrage of media attention regarding management consultants BIS Shrapnel’s economic modelling of Labor's proposed changes to negative gearing policy. Across radio and television reports, much time and attention was given to criticism of the ‘dark art’ of economic modelling and its apparent capacity to deliver whatever results or findings are required by those commissioning it. In NSW at present, economic modelling is providing strong support and justification for the Baird Government’s plans for council amalgamations. Consulting company KPMG was contracted to perform the economic modelling and prepare the 45 amalgamation proposals currently under consideration at a reported cost of $400,000. Reading through the proposals, two characteristics stand out. The first is KPMG’s modelling that indicates the consistently positive economic impacts that will flow to NSW communities as a result of the amalgamations. The second is the absence of any account of the assumptions or detailed data underpinning this modelling. Some disturbing insights into the ‘variability’ of this economic modelling are evident in examining the three-into-one amalgamation proposal for Cooma Monaro, Snowy River and Bombala Councils in the State’s south-east. According to introductory statements in the document, “The proposal .... is supported by independent analysis and modelling by KPMG.”  The proposal provides a strong rationale for the amalgamation of these councils, citing numerous financial and other benefits to both the new council and its communities. With amalgamations on the horizon in early 2015, these three councils commissioned KPMG, for a total cost of $80,000, to do some economic modelling for them and prepare a ‘Merger Business Case Analysis’. In light of the recent criticisms of economic modelling and in a quick game of ‘spot the contradictions’, a comparative assessment of the two reports makes interesting reading. Consider the following statements from the reports: State Government amalgamation proposal: "The efficiencies and savings generated by the merger will allow the new council to invest in improved service levels and/or a greater range of services and address the current infrastructure backlog across the three councils." Council merger business case analysis: "... a merged council is likely to materially underperform against benchmarks relating to asset renewal and infrastructure backlog." or: State Government amalgamation proposal: "This merger proposal will provide the new council with the opportunity to strengthen its balance sheet and provide a more consistent level of financial performance. Overall, the proposed merger is expected to enhance the financial sustainability of the new council." Council merger business case analysis: "The assumptions adopted in the financial analysis are conservative and acknowledge the likely difficulties in generating efficiencies and economies of scale from the proposed merger." or: State Government amalgamation proposal: "These communities are bound by their sense of place as an alpine region. Box 2 provides examples of community organisations, services and facilities that have a presence across the region, which indicate the existence of strong existing connections between the communities in the existing council areas." Council merger business case analysis: "... a merged council entity may also encounter challenges in tailoring programs and initiatives to diverse community interests and profiles across a region spanning more than 15,000 km2." Think about these statements - they are some of the outcomes of two economic modelling exercises performed by one consultant [KPMG] focusing on the same amalgamation scenario. Total public money expended - $480,000. Yet reading these statements, it’s hard to believe that the two reports came from one single source. The apparent contradictions are alarming. What makes this more concerning is that whilst the full KPMG report prepared for the councils is freely available, that prepared for the State Government, along with any supporting analysis and assumptions, has not been publicly released despite numerous requests from councils, communities, the State Opposition and others. In his essay in The Monthly in April 2015 titled Spreadsheets of power - How economic modelling is used to circumvent democracy and shut down debate’, Australian economist Richard Denniss observed that “Economic models are at their most powerful when only the powerful are aware of what they contain: thousands of assumptions that range from the immoral and implausible to the well-meaning but estimated. However they are made, the conclusions of a model are only as reliable as its assumptions.” In the end, the economic modellers may get these NSW amalgamations over the line. But these reports should sound warning bells for the State Government, that if they’re about to introduce sweeping changes across the State that may have far-reaching impacts on communities, modelling only for the outcomes they want is probably not good practice. There are risks and costs involved in amalgamations – any council that has been through the process will say the same. If the State Government’s own consultants found them in one case, they can probably find them in the other 44.   Martin Bass is a Sydney-based, independent local government consultant. [post_title] => Best of 2016: Cash for contradictions: KPMG's model for council mergers [post_excerpt] => Model behaviour for $480k. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => cash-for-contradictions-kpmg-council-merger-reports [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-12-20 15:38:06 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-12-20 04:38:06 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=23674 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 5 [filter] => raw ) [7] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24529 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-07-26 13:22:29 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-07-26 03:22:29 [post_content] => Portrait of a viking or a knight about to go into a battle. He wears a armor suit and holds a helmet under his arm. With one hand, he holds a sword up in the air as he signals to his followers to pay attention. The sky is full of big black clouds and the terrain looks sad and fruitless. Woollahra Council could be back in court as early as Monday next week after deciding to appeal a court judgement on its forced amalgamation with Randwick and Waverley Councils. Chief Judge Brian Preston ruled in favour of the state government in the Land and Environment Court on July 20, causing a serious set back to Woollahra Council’s argument that the public inquiry process preceding the merger was flawed. The council’s legal team argued that the public were not given reasonable notice of the inquiry and they questioned the independence of consultancy firm KPMG. The firm wrote a report claiming a bounty of $149 million in savings over 20 years from the three-way merger. As part of its appeal, the council will also look to suspend an order for costs made by Justice Preston which would see it pay the government’s legal costs as well as its own, something that could land the council with a $1 million bill for its troubles. Government News understands that the council has spent about $692,000 prosecuting its anti-merger case so far and an appeal will cost in the region of $120,000 but Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer has said this would be dwarfed by the rate increases and disruption that she said would follow the proposed merger. Three Supreme Court judges will hear the case in the Court of Appeal, the highest court in New South Wales. Ms Zeltzer said councillors unanimously decided to push ahead with the appeal after meeting the council’s legal team last night (Monday), a meeting which she said “confirmed adequate grounds for legal challenge on the judgement.” “The decision to appeal was made on the same basis as our original legal challenge. This is just a further way of demonstrating how serious we are about protecting the democratic rights of our community and serving their best interests,” Ms Zeltzer said. “With such strong community opposition to forced amalgamation our community deserves to have a say in its future and we believe the community were not given a fair go during the state government’s public inquiry.” [post_title] => Woollahra Council to keep battling merger [post_excerpt] => Case moves to Supreme Court. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => woollahra-council-keeps-fighting-merger [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-07-29 09:23:06 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-07-28 23:23:06 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24529 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [8] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24479 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-07-20 11:41:48 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-07-20 01:41:48 [post_content] => Woollahra Council 3_opt Is it last drinks for Woollahra Council?     Woollahra Council, in Sydney’s prestigious eastern suburbs, has lost the first round in its legal bid to prevent the NSW government merging it with two other councils and has been ordered to pay the government’s costs. The state government was keen to merge Woollahra with Randwick and Waverley Councils, a move supported by the other two councils but vigorously opposed by Woollahra. The delegate who ran the public inquiry and wrote a report on the merger, Dr Robert Lang, recommended the merger proposal go ahead. During the Land and Environment Court case, Woollahra Council argued that it had been denied procedural fairness during the amalgamation process and criticised the public inquiry that accompanied it, asking the court step in and restrain NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole from attempting the merger. Woollahra Council also argued that consultancy firm KPMG should not have been analysing proposals because it was not sufficiently independent. Chief Judge Brian Preston’s concluded: “I find that Woollahra Council has not established any of the grounds of challenge concerning the notice of the holding of the inquiry; the holding of the inquiry; the examination and report by the Delegate of the Departmental Chief Executive; the review of, and comments on, the Delegate’s report by the Boundaries Commission; procedural fairness by the Delegate and the Boundaries Commission; and the alleged misrepresentation that KPMG had provided independent analysis of the proposal. “The proceedings should be dismissed with costs.” Woollahra Mayor Toni Zeltzer told 702 ABC Radio earlier today (Wednesday) that she was heartbroken by the court’s decision. "We've found this an abhorrent thing for us to be forced to merge, it will have a huge impact on our community both in cost and in the loss of our community's interest," Ms Zeltzer said. "We were obliged to challenge this forced merger on behalf of our community for whom we've been elected to represent.” She said the council had until Monday to decide whether to lodge an appeal and that the state government had promised there would be no proclamation in the meantime. Government News understands that the nature of the appeal will determine in which court the case is heard but it is most likely to be the Supreme Court. Ms Zeltzer said:  “We now need to give full consideration to the judgement, which is 102 pages long,” she said. “We will be consulting with our legal team and taking their advice about the next steps. “While we’re disappointed with the judgement, we will continue to fight for the best interests of the Woollahra community.” Mr Toole welcomed the judge’s decision and said it was a vindication that the government followed the ‘correct processes’ during council mergers. “The Local Government Act outlines what must be done before a council is merged and today’s judgment shows that the Government has followed the requirements of the Act”, Mr Toole said. The verdict is a discouraging one for other councils involved in similar legal action, including Ku-ring-gai, Hunters Hill and Strathfield. While many of them are advancing similar arguments as Woollahra they will make other challenges about the way the government carried out the merger process. Greens Local Government spokesman David Shoebridge said the fight against council mergers was not over. “This judgement is a setback for those opposed to the arrogant forced amalgamation agenda from the Mike Baird, but it is by no means the end of the road in legal challenges,” Mr Shoebridge said. “Not only will we see an appeal in this case, but there are a series of separate cases, with separate legal points and unique factual circumstances from other councils that are also before the Courts. “Communities will not just give up on their local councils and they will continue to fight to keep their councils independent and genuinely local regardless of the pressure from Mike Baird.”   Read the full court judgement here.   [post_title] => Woollahra Council loses first round of merger fight, pays costs [post_excerpt] => Good day for Paul Toole. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => woollahra-council-loses-first-round-merger-case-pays-costs [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-07-21 19:53:23 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-07-21 09:53:23 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24479 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [9] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24406 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-07-14 12:15:36 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-07-14 02:15:36 [post_content] => Paul Toole anger media conference 1   Academics and activists have poured scorn on NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole’s claims that newly merged councils have already saved millions since merging on May 12. Nineteen new councils were created from 43 councils two months ago and Mr Toole said the savings were already rolling in.  State Premier Mike Baird has promised that NSW council mergers will yield $2 billion in savings over the next twenty years. Mr Toole told the Sydney Morning Herald: “Over a two-week period in June seven of the new councils collectively saved $6.7 million through a reduction in senior executive positions and lower administration costs, such as banking … and information and communications technology” adding, “These early wins are just the start.” Georges River Council (formerly Hurstville and Kogarah Councils) said the savings it had made since merging would fund an extra $620,000 in pensioner rate rebates. Meanwhile, Northern Beaches Council (previously Manly, Warringah and Pittwater Councils) told residents it has already found $3 million in annual savings, mostly through insurance, worker’s compensation insurance and senior executive redundancies. However, the minister refused to name the other five NSW councils that had made savings or how they had been made. Caution and suspicion  But some academics and activists are viewing Mr Toole’s claims with suspicion and warning of the consequences if councils believe the hype. Dr Joseph Drew, Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, said a crucial piece of information was missing: whether the announced savings were gross or net. Dr Drew said it was unlikely savings had yet materialised from making senior executives redundant, particularly because most executives would have been entitled to a redundancy payment. In addition, some councils have kept on both former general managers (one as deputy general manager), at least for a while. Government News suspects that those general managers that have kept their jobs would be reasonably expecting bigger pay packets in return for heading up larger councils and more complex operations too, pushing council costs up. It is also uncertain whether the announced savings have factored in the pay of government appointed council administrators. Apart from the most senior roles, other staff are protected from forced redundancies for three years so these savings will not be registered for a while either. Dr Drew said: “There would be gross savings, there’s no two ways about it, whether there are net savings is a completely different matter. It would be extremely unlikely that we could have a net saving at this point in time.” He said that most councils had also incurred significant costs in community consultations and preparing business cases prior to the amalgamations. Whatever the details of the savings – details of which Government News was unable to elicit from Mr Toole’s office – it seems a very early call to make. Dr Drew said: “We won’t really know until we have four full financial years of data.” He said councils should not go on a spending spree in anticipation of raking in millions of savings promised by the government, something he said happened in Queensland after council mergers. “This represents danger to the financial sustainability of these councils if they start believing that that they are saving money now before they can possibly know and basing their future spending decisions on this.” Local government expert Professor Brian Dollery from the University of New England – a council merger sceptic – agreed that Mr Toole was going off “half-cocked.” “It’s highly imprudent of the Minister to make these claims so early in the 2016/17 financial year,” Prof Dollery said. “We’ve got to wait for the financial statements at the end of the year and that will only give us a preliminary feeling for the financial costs and benefits. “The big costs are only going to come once staff reductions kick in and you have to factor in redundancy costs. There are also obviously IT systems, service harmonization and the like: all come with massive costs.” Professor Dollery said merger costs occurred for up to six years after the 2008 Queensland council mergers and that staff costs rose year-on-year for newly amalgamated councils, compared with those who did not merge. “Of course, you can pick out the savings but there are also going to be costs. You may have initial savings because you have sacked senior staff but it gets frittered away quickly.” Save Our Councils Coalition member and Mosman councillor Tom Sherlock said he did not doubt councils had made savings and that these were welcome but he questioned the detail and whether service quality and delivery had been considered. “They might have saved in one areas but spent in another area,” Mr Sherlock said. “I would suggest that the overall program is still significantly in deficit, considering all the costs of merging.” Mr Sherlock said he doubted the savings reported from senior staff leaving were solid either. “At the Northern Beaches Council for a time they had all three of the general managers plus the administrator on top. I would be very surprised if there were net savings at this point in time.” He argued that savings made by combining IT contracts could have been made through joint organisations, rather than mergers, and that the cost of integrating IT systems across councils would end up being significant. Mr Sherlock said that the minister was clearly keen to be seen to start delivering merger savings. He had been told that merged councils were reporting to the Department of Premier and Cabinet weekly. “I fear that the Premier and the minister are keeping very close contact with these councils with a complete absence of any elected representatives. The state government is using local government as a tool for their own agenda.” What Paul Toole’s Office said Government News put a series of questions to Mr Toole’s office, including asking whether savings were gross or net, which councils had reported savings so far and in what areas of expenditure. Questions were also asked about how savings could have been made so soon by dumping senior executives and how new councils could have achieved savings in IT, particularly when merging IT systems has been acknowledge as being one of the most expensive parts of council mergers. Mr Toole’s office confirmed that the savings reported so far did not include state government money for merger costs or from the Stronger Communities Fund. A spokesperson for Mr Toole offered a succinct reply to Government News’ list of questions: “Questions about the detail of savings made by new councils can be directed to the councils.” So we did. All 19 of them. More to follow. [post_title] => Toole’s millions in council merger savings ridiculed [post_excerpt] => Minister's one-sentence reply. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 24406 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-07-15 09:07:25 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-07-14 23:07:25 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24406 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [10] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24203 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-06-22 12:00:24 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-22 02:00:24 [post_content] => "Road Closed" warning sign posted at a small wooden bridge in a springtime rural dramatic black and white landscape As 19 brand new NSW councils work furiously behind the scenes to merge their teams and operations most ratepayers only want to know one thing: how will mergers will affect council services? Government News spoke to experts in the NSW local government sector in an attempt to answer how services might change under new councils, whether the promised savings will be achieved and what this means for rates further down the track. Harmonising local council services: the challenges The first task, says Associate Professor Roberta Ryan, Director of University of Technology Sydney’s Australian Centre for Excellence in Local Government, is for new councils to agree on what services are already being delivered, how they are being carried out and what they’re costing. Councils often categorise and run their services differently and from different parts of their organisation. For example, parks and recreation could fall under community facilities, infrastructure or community development. The broad range of services councils provide also makes harmonisation a complex undertaking. Councils are not just about the three R’s (roads, rates and rubbish) but an amalgam of numerous services, including childcare, community centres, libraries, pools and leisure centres, parking, beach patrols, dog control, food safety and planning. Some also provide aged care and deliver water and sewerage services. Councils plan services based on a number of factors, demographics and local needs being paramount and this will affect the service mix of each organisation. For example, a council with a high population of working parents is likely to invest more heavily in childcare. Another with an older population might focus on community transport and providing services for older people. Annalisa Haskell, CEO of Local Government Professionals Australia, NSW, which offers councils a range of resources to manage mergers and benchmark their services, says councils are not one size fits all. “Each has a different mix of services based upon how a council has decided to play a role in their local area. They are made up of very disparate services – both in nature, skills and process,” Ms Haskell says. Another major headache for councils is they may measure the cost and efficiency of service delivery differently. User fees and charges and council regulations also vary. The state government has asked new councils to complete service reviews by the end of September, setting out how services are currently delivered and how they will be aligned. Councils have also been asked to assess the impact and cost of service harmonisation, including on council staff. Inner West Council’s Community Services Director Simone Schwartz said councils had a “huge program of work” ahead of them to harmonise service delivery, while integrating the cultures of several councils and working out practical details, such as the co-location of staff. “To the outside it’s looking like it is one council. Behind the scenes everybody is focused on making sure we continue to ensure seamless service delivery,” Ms Schwartz says. Asked if staff were worried about their jobs or if posts would be left unfilled if people left, Ms Schwartz said: “We think there’s more than enough work for everyone and then some.” Will services get better, worse or stay the same? The general consensus appears to be that services will rise to the highest level under the new, larger councils because new councils are unlikely to risk irritating ratepayers in any of the former council areas by reducing services. “If you’ve got really happy residents and you’re doing something really well, you’re not going to cut back on a service,” Ms Schwartz says. On the plus side, this provides an opportunity for merged councils to adopt the ‘best practice’ of the best council performer in each area, upskilling staff and benefitting residents. Ms Ryan said there was a great deal of optimism amongst council staff, who felt that mergers presented an opportunity to reflect and improve on services. The new, larger councils also give staff the chance to move into more senior, co-ordinator roles being created. But increased service levels means greater costs and council resources are tight. How will these rising costs square with NSW Premier Mike Baird’s insistence that former councils maintain their rates trajectory for four years, outlawing new rate rises? Ms Ryan said councils would need to engage their communities in a conversation about trade-offs because bankrolling higher service levels in every area was not possible. “There’s a fixed bucket of money and in many cases a declining bucket of money. Councils are getting better at asking people “do you want this or that?” Add into that mix, the rate capping system, which has been in place since 1978, the freezing of financial assistance grants to councils (their main source of income) and other levels of government increasingly shifting responsibilities onto local councils without providing the funds to cover them. One prediction is that the yawning NSW infrastructure gap - estimated at a whopping$7.4 billion in 2012 by Department of Premier and Cabinet, will be aggravated as cash is funnelled into boosting service levels instead. Council merger sceptic Professor Brian Dollery from the University of New England’s Centre for Local Government predicts NSW will fall further behind in maintaining its roads, bridges and buildings, hitting regional NSW residents hardest. “Less and less will be spent on infrastructure because it’s not as urgent,” Prof Dollery says. “They say, “we can do it next year” and of course it comes around and bites you.” Prof Dollery said people in regional NSW were used to “pretty low levels of service” but compensated by paying low rates. “People in regional council areas that are forcibly merged, all they want is their roads properly cared for,” he says. “Roads are a hell of a big deal outside metropolitan areas.” Because the main driver of local government costs is population density, says Prof Dollery, road upkeep is less of a problem in the city. It is more expensive to keep the road network going in regional areas and there is a lower rates base for councils to work with. Worse, the state government is trying to move responsibility for some of its roads into the hands of local government without providing ongoing funding. There is a theory that at the heart of forced council mergers is the state government’s desire to beef up local government’s clout so councils can borrow more and narrow the infrastructure gap. Ms Ryan says councils are also falling behind in maintaining vital stormwater infrastructure. “Often councils can’t even afford to put the cameras down there to see what state they’re in. These things are already a significant issue,” Ms Ryan says. She agrees that the impact of higher service levels and lower infrastructure investment will be variable but residents in the metro areas would probably notice less change under new councils than in regional areas, where people would be more likely to experience a negative impact. Can service harmonisation save money? NSW Premier Mike Baird has claimed council mergers will deliver $2 billion in over the next 20 years. The government has made a big song and dance about the cash that will be saved from integrating service delivery and procurement but how realistic are these claims? Economies of scale are generally easier to achieve where there is capital intensity. Examples include water services (the driver behind the creation of Sydney Water), roads, bridges and buildings, particularly in metro areas. Labour-intensive services, such as customer service and running community facilities, make such economies less achievable. They are also the most expensive services to deliver. Add to that the fact that councils have been moving towards a more people-oriented service mix for a while, where they had previously specialised in services to property, partly to pick up the slack from other levels of government. Ms Haskell says that councils are essentially a composite of many, heavily operational and people-centred services so savings may not be that easy to find. She says: “It is evident that perhaps state government doesn’t understand this well.” She contrast councils to banks, insurance companies and telcos who also run complex services with many customer and product transactions. They can drive economies of scale more easily because they have consistent products across multiple locations. It may be difficult to find enough organisational synergies to reduce costs by integrating services, especially where there are complex areas of state legislation governing compliance, procedures and processes. Ms Haskell says: “Let’s face it, even if councils do more shared services, joint service delivery or regional service delivery - something that is being encouraged to consider seriously with the implementation of the Joint Organisation framework coming into place - there are still some of the same physical and geographical constraints for some of the services councils run. "There are still the same number of pools, parking or restaurant inspections, kilometres of coastline to manage, tourist inflow and traffic outflows, as well as number of dangerous dogs to catch – regardless of where you draw the boundary line!” In fact, service harmonisation and council mergers could push council wage bills higher as service levels rise and a more complicated managerial structure is needed to supervise more staff. But procurement could be an area where bigger savings are possible, although disentangling legacy systems such as payroll, rostering and finance could be an expensive business, especially under deadline pressures. Read more here. The KPMG report to NSW government identified IT as a high-risk area for cost blowouts. Prof Dollery argues that councils could gain more procurement advantages if there was a state procurement agency, as Local Government Association of Queensland, or through regional and joint organisations. “You can’t be selective with amalgamations, you can’t select out specific functions. It’s all or nothing,” he says. Rates It will be four years until rates can begin to be harmonised as the NSW government has banned any new rate rises by merged councils during this time. Interestingly, as services equalise across former council areas it will mean ratepayers could be paying different rates for the same service. While this is already the case for some household bills, for example, utilities, rates tend to be more contentious and their differences more obvious. Ms Ryan says that while this need not necessarily need to be a problem, it is important for councils to move towards rates harmonisation sooner rather than later. Prof Dollery predicts an eventual, large rate hike under new councils once the moratorium on rate rises is removed. “What it really means is that rates rise to the highest levels in councils and service levels do too.” The pressure to increase rates will not just come from the likely rise in service levels, local government wages are expected to settle at the highest level too. Since wages make up more than one-third of their councils’ costs this is significant. Larger councils will mean the creation of more senior roles and new managerial positions, raising the demand for skilled labour and inflating its cost as new councils compete for the best people. While these new positions and higher wages open up opportunities for existing council staff it makes it harder for the NSW government to substantiate claims that council mergers will bring savings. However, ratepayers may be happy to pay higher rates for more and better services. As opportunities open up, the pressures are converging upon councils. Ms Ryan says: “The crunch has got to give somewhere. I just don’t know that there’s that many efficiency gains to be had.” [post_title] => Roads will crumble but services improve under mega councils: experts [post_excerpt] => Promised savings unlikely to materialise form mergers. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 24203 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-22 10:35:58 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-22 00:35:58 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24203 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 2 [filter] => raw ) [11] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24117 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-06-10 16:49:41 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-10 06:49:41 [post_content] => Auckland, New Zealand - October 3, 2015: Auckland city council town hall. It's an historic building known for its ongoing use for administrative functions as well as for its famed Great Hall and its Concert Chamber.   The successes and failures of the recent NSW council mergers will be laid bare using data from an annual benchmarking survey – the first of its kind in Australia. The merger process has been fraught for NSW Premier Mike Baird, with both sides flinging around statistics about merger costs and savings in an attempt to support or refute the ideological case for forced council mergers. Nineteen new NSW councils were created on May 12 (from 41 councils) and there are 11 more council mergers in the offing, pending the outcome of court cases. Part of the problem of making a case for – or against – mergers in the past has been that their impact has never been systematically measured, not in Victoria during the 1994 mergers, nor the Queensland council mergers in 2008. It makes it impossible to conclude whether mergers have been duds or shining successes or a mixture of both. Local Government Professionals Australia NSW and Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) are attempting to remedy this situation and they have been collecting statistics from many NSW councils on a wide range of topics since 2013, in anticipation that council mergers were not going away any time soon. The reports, NSW local government operational and management effectiveness reports, will provide baseline data on the impact of NSW council mergers. By 2019, there will be six years of data for many councils, four before mergers and two years after, giving new councils a good idea of how the mergers have gone across a number of indicators. Some Western Australia and New Zealand councils have also joined the project. Detailed intelligence has been amassed on councils’ workforces, service delivery and operations.  Examples of indicators include, the cost of providing various services and what councils spend on each citizen, for example, on waste and water; the structure of corporate services; the number of managers per staff member and so on. Workforce profiles form a key element of the project, logging the jobs and skill sets of staff and data on areas such as staff turnover by age group, gender and ethnic mix, sick leave and the number of women promoted at each level. Important information when amalgamating staff from several councils into one. Councils are given a report and analysis to help highlight areas that are going well and those which need attention. Councils opt in and pay for the benchmarking. The council leadership team then decides what to do with the information, whether to make it public, use it only internally for decision make or communicate it to staff. CEO of Local Government Professionals Australia NSW Annalisa Haskell said the project would be able to finally track council performance before and after council mergers in NSW: an Australian first. “No other state has a tracking vehicle before [for] change. It’s a really powerful tool for the councils,” Ms Haskell said. “You actually know where you are and where you’re going.” “How will you know you get there if you don’t measure it? “Nobody has taken the time to understand local government.” She said the reports would allow councils to keep track of how they went over the years and provide useful comparisons to councils of similar size and location. It was not necessarily about the savings that could be squeezed from mergers but about improving outcomes, such as higher levels of service or a better service mix, and the community benefit from these, “The service mix of a council is critical in understanding how that council is working and its initial performance.” Ms Haskell said she also wants to make sure that council management teams are accountable for delivering outcomes, primarily by giving them the data to help them measure these. The data will give council managers the tools to make decisions and allocated funding and staff and give merged councils the information they need to harmonise areas such as service levels and delivery. But it is not merely about metrics but also very much about context. For example, a council may spend an above average amount on road construction per citizen because of the type of surfaces it is dealing with or it may spend more on aged care or childcare than another council because of an area’s demographics. Service mix and costs are a function of different pressures, whether this is physical, demographic or geographical. Barry Smith, President of Local Government Professionals Australia NSW and General Manager at Hunters Hill Council, said the benchmarking would be ‘critical’ for councils. “It’s allowing us to collect a whole range of operational data and then compare it to benchmarks. If you can’t measure it you can’t maintain it.” Stuart Shinfield is Head of Partner Analytics at PWC and he says senior leaders at councils will benefit from having access to years of data. “There is a focus on helping [council] managers to do a better job of the stewardship of resources.” Director of Community Services at Sydney’s newly created Inner West Council Simone Schwartz agreed and said the reports were a vital tool for councils, rather than a ranking system and a big stick to hit them with. “You can look at trends for your own organisation. It’s measuring against yourself, where you are above or below a benchmark and where you can improve,” Ms Schwartz said. She points out that there is an incredibly diverse team of people working for councils delivering a huge complexity of services to communities. “In Community Services I have landscape architects, historians, chefs, childcare workers, librarians. “Local government is in the business of solving complex problems.” The results of all this benchmarking could prove uplifting or highly damaging to NSW Mike Baird when NSW goes to the polls in 2019. The data is limited by two things: a three-year moratorium on forced redundancies for staff at newly merged councils (five, in some councils) and a NSW government imposed four-year freeze on council rates. The vindication - or fallout - will also depend upon what the results are and whether councils chose to make them public. So far around 61 NSW councils, 40 Western Australian councils and 28 from New Zealand are part of the project. The deadline for joining is the end of June. [post_title] => Impact of NSW council mergers to be exposed by survey [post_excerpt] => Benchmarking before and after mergers. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => measuring-mergers-nsw-councils-pioneer-benchmarking [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-14 10:53:02 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-14 00:53:02 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24117 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) [12] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24043 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-06-01 15:22:38 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-06-01 05:22:38 [post_content] => Man putting a ballot into a voting box - Australia   NSW Premier Mike Baird has rejected calls to bring forward a September 2017 election date for newly merged local councils, saying there is too much work to do to amalgamate councils first. The wholesale dumping of councillors and mayors on May 12, when 19 new councils were proclaimed, led to calls for local government elections to be brought forward to ensure ratepayers were not disenfranchised for 16 months. The push for earlier elections comes amidst criticisms that new council administrators are in the government’s pocket and fears that unpalatable developments will be rushed through while administrators are in charge. Anger has also been provoked by the news that administrators and panels will decide on the distribution of Stronger Communities funding – up to $15 million of government funding for each new council, primarily for infrastructure. But Mr Baird defended the decision to delay local council elections in Question Time yesterday (Tuesday) and said: “bringing bodies together involves a lot of work.” “It involves dealing with different IT systems, and that does not happen overnight,” Mr Baird said. “Each individual council will have different contracts with different suppliers, whether they be lighting, roads or parks contractors. Bringing them together will produce economies of scale that will deliver benefits to local communities. “Councils also have different planning and events departments, and there will be different senior management structures.” Mr Baird said that local council elections were held from between 16 and 28 months after the 1994 Victorian council mergers. “This Government wants this process to happen as quickly as possible, and that is why we have said that elections will be held in 16 months,” he said. “That is the shortest time in which we can complete the work that will ensure the best possible outcomes to enable councils to deliver benefits to their communities.” Mr Baird took aim at the Opposition during Question Time. “I know that members opposite do not understand the hard work involved in ensuring that the systems, the people, the processes, the structures and the strategies are right so that we can hand over new councils that will deliver benefits to ratepayers. I know members opposite do not understand that, but it is what needs to be done.” NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole has previously laid the blame for delaying council elections at that the feet of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). “The Electoral Commission advised the Government that it was impossible to hold elections for new councils in September 2016,” Mr Toole said. “The Commission also indicated that it was their preference that elections for new councils be held in September 2017 to allow them to be ready. Further, the time allows Administrators to successfully integrate the council organisations in time for the election of councillors to new councils.” But Summer Hill Labor MP Jo Haylen, whose state electorate includes the new Inner West Council, which was the scene of angry protests in May, said the government was just making excuses. She said a properly resourced AEC could speed up the process so elections could happen earlier: “There is no reason whatsoever that the Minister can’t call elections for September this year. "Only local government elections will ensure a truly representative voice for local people,” Ms Haylen said. Projects including WestConnex, the Sydenham to Bankstown rezoning and the Parramatta Road revitalisation mean that it's a high stakes game for the Inner West over the next 16 months. “Each of these projects is opposed by the local community and will require the involvement of council at all stages,” she said. “With the merged council under the control of an unelected official, local residents effectively have no say in how these massive projects will impact them and their suburbs. “Residents are concerned that the administrator will allow the Baird Government to steam roll local opposition and let development go unchecked.” Ms Haylen said that since the three councils were forcibly merged into the new Inner West Council and an administrator appointed her office had anecdotally noticed a spike in the number of development applications being bulked up and resubmitted from what residents were telling them. Former Leichhardt Labor Mayor Darcy Byrne said putting off elections was increasing tension at local level. “That’s the one thing that Mike Baird could do to reduce the current chaotic circumstances, to bring the elections forward so that new councils can get some democratic legitimacy sooner, rather than later,” Mr Byrne said. “People are very suspicious about why elections have been delayed for the best part of 18 months. Even people who support amalgamations have been shocked. “Paul Toole says that’s what’s in the proclamations. Well, that can be changed by him at the stroke of a pen.” Mr Byrne said elections could be held much earlier in 2017, despite the government’s argument that it would take the AEC time to draw up new rules and boundaries. [post_title] => Baird refuses to expedite council elections, blames merger workload [post_excerpt] => Ratepayers must wait ‘til September 2017. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => 24043 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-02 22:50:37 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-02 12:50:37 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24043 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 3 [filter] => raw ) [13] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 24027 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2016-05-31 15:51:17 [post_date_gmt] => 2016-05-31 05:51:17 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_24028" align="alignnone" width="300"]Strathfield_Railway_Station_3_opt Next stop amalgamation?[/caption]   A merger between Burwood, Canada Bay and Strathfield Councils has been postponed after the Land and Environment Court ruled the NSW government could not rely on the Boundaries Commission’s report to make a merger case. NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole was forced into an embarrassing climb down today (Tuesday) as the court ordered that he should not to rely on delegate Richard Colley’s report on the merger between the three Sydney Councils. The Minister was also ordered to pay Strathfield Council’s costs. Mr Toole said the report was rejected “due to a legal technicality in the delegate’s report” and he said the delegate would “consider the matter and reissue his report.” But Greens MP and Local Government spokesman David Shoebridge said the report was “thrown out” by the court, most likely because the delegate had made errors in his report and was legally flawed, “The Minister can say what he likes but the community will expect much more than a tick and flick.” Because consent orders involve an agreement between two parties, rather than a court judgement, it is difficult to know what the report’s flaws were and whether this case will affect similar court cases involving forced council mergers. There are nine merger proposals currently before the courts, most of which involve councils alleging that the merger and public inquiry process has not been fair. Mr Shoebridge called the consent orders "a disaster for Mike Baird” and said councils embroiled in court cases with the state government on merger proposals would be scrutinising delegates’ reports particularly closely in the light of this. “When a government tries to do a job on local communities and cut legal corners and rush through an undemocratic process it is no wonder they trip up,” Mr Shoebridge said. “Effectively the government has given up on trying to defend the delegate’s report. This puts the merger plan for the Strathfield, Burwood and Canada Bay councils in legal limbo while the government struggles to work out its next step.” The terms of the proposed order, read by the Government in court today were:
  1.       Order restraining the first respondent Minister from recommending implementation of the proposal to amalgamate the local government areas of Strathfield, Burwood and Canada Bay dated January 2016 in reliance on the purported report titled "Examination of the Proposal to merge Burwood City Council, City of Canada Bay Council and Strathfield Municipal Council" dated March 2016.
  2.       Minister to pay the applicant's costs.
NSW Governor David Hurley issued a proclamation to create 19 new NSW councils (from 45) on May 12. Twelve other merger proposals are pending, two-thirds of which are currently in court. [post_title] => Three-council merger postponed; Baird cops court costs [post_excerpt] => Delegate’s report flawed. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => three-council-merger-postponed-baird-cops-court-costs [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2016-06-01 13:19:39 [post_modified_gmt] => 2016-06-01 03:19:39 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://www.governmentnews.com.au/?p=24027 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ) ) [post_count] => 14 [current_post] => -1 [in_the_loop] => [post] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 27402 [post_author] => 659 [post_date] => 2017-06-16 10:40:21 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-06-16 00:40:21 [post_content] => Hilltops Council is one of the NSW councils facing a bill for its merger. Pic: Facebook.   The NSW government has left some councils with hefty bills to pay since their forced amalgamations in May last year. Government News understands that mergers have ended up costing some NSW councils more than the state government merger and transition funding they were given. Rural and regional councils, in particular, are resentful because they received only half of what metropolitan councils were given to cover the process and yet they often receive much less from rates and have lower reserves. Rural and regional councils received $5 million for each merger, while metropolitan councils were handed $10 million for their mergers under the state government’s New Council Implementation Fund (NCIF). But there were caveats. The funding could only be used for certain things, such as getting expert advice and integrating IT systems, but not to pay ongoing staff costs or council administrators, who replace councillors and mayors until the local government elections in September. Councils were also given between $10 to $15 million of Stronger Communities funding to go towards community projects and infrastructure. Despite the funding, some councils are finding there is a reality gap. Hilltops Council, a merger between Boorowa, Harden and Young Councils in the South West Slopes of the state, estimates that it will end up spending $6.5 million on its merger, a shortfall of $1.5 million. Greens MP and Local Government Spokesperson David Shoebridge said residents of the three former council areas would be ‘shaking their heads’ at the figures and wondering where the $1.5 million extra would come from. “Every independent expert said at the start of this process that amalgamations would be more expensive and more disruptive than the government pretended, and now we are seeing this come true,” Mr Shoebridge said. “The incompetence of the Coalition is really staggering, and now they are expecting residents in the local councils they have destroyed to meet the cost of their failure.” Hilltops General Manager Anthony McMahon said he did not understand the logic behind giving rural and regional councils significantly less funding to cover their merger costs than their metro counterparts. “In our case, we’ve been responsible for bringing three councils together that are geographically separated,” Mr McMahon said. “We’re also a water utility and we have additional constraints in relation to having two former councils with populations under 5,000, which means we have to comply with Section 218CA of the Local Government Act.  These factors are not a consideration for metro councils.” The council will finalise its transitional costs and then consider whether to lobby the state government for the money. “We’re focused on ensuring Hilltops Council is adequately resourced to complete the merger process, and will be making representations to Minister Upton accordingly,” Mr McMahon said. “We’ve made clear our determination in ensuring the community does not pay for merger-related costs.” But it is not only regional councils who have been left to pick up the tab for the mergers most of them fought hard against. Sydney’s Northern Beaches Council, an amalgam of Manly, Pittwater and Warringah Councils, received $10 million for its upfront merger costs and has only $105,000 left in the kitty. The council’s biggest outlays were $2.5 million for staff redundancies and $2.8 million for system integration. Northern Beaches Council acknowledges it faces further restructuring costs in the draft of its 2017-2018 Operational Plan. “It is recognised that council will incur further restructuring costs such as the cost of integration, aligning positions within the new organisational structure and new salary system which will exceed the funding provided,” says the plan. “Accordingly the Long Term Financial Plan has been prepared on the basis that once the NCIF has been fully utilised, existing budgets will firstly be used to pay for those merger and transition costs not funded through this mechanism prior to the identification of net savings.” Brian Halstead President of Save Our Councils Coalition, a community group against forced council mergers, said a funding shortfall had always been on the cards. “The amount that the government allowed was based on the KPMG report, which under costed amalgamations and because they’re not allowing councils to book the ongoing staff costs and administrators against the funding,” Mr Halstead said. He said some council staff were spending 25 per cent of their time managing the merger process, including harmonising service delivery and staff pay and conditions, and that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian should stump up the extra cash. “If I was a ratepayer, I would be thinking that these amalgamations have been forced on them by state government. It’s only reasonable that the state government bear the costs of amalgamation but I doubt any of the administrators will [ask] because they’re paid public servants.” Local Government NSW (LGNSW) President Keith Rhoades said he was not surprised that merger costs had exceeded the funding available. “LGNSW, along with a number of academics and other experts, argued strongly throughout the process that there was a strong potential for additional costs,” Mr Rhoades said. “It was always clear that the cost of individual amalgamations would vary from council to council depending on readiness, systems compatibility, staff skills etc and in fact this is one reason why forced amalgamations can be more difficult than those that are achieved voluntarily, after extensive meaningful consultation.” Roberta Ryan, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney, said it was hard to predict the cost of mergers but the state government had given it their best shot at trying to work it out from past experience. She said the cost of mergers would depend partly upon the extent of co-operation between councils before they merged, for example through shared IT systems and services and the level of regulatory harmony in an area. “I understand there has been a shortfall for a number of councils,” Ms Ryan said. “Many regional and rural councils would have found it harder and more expensive because the amount [they were given] was less and some of them may not have been working towards some of these things that some of the metro councils were.” The ability of new councils to absorb any cost blowout was highly variable, she said. “Some councils have good reserves but some of the smaller ones are very strapped financially.” Asked when the true costs and savings from mergers would be known she said: “Not ever - as we don’t have the base line data available - there can be overall benefits and improvements - that may have happened even if the amalgamations didn’t happen.” The Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) would not say whether any NSW councils had approached Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton to fund the shortfall or whether the government would act, should this occur. The DPC statement would only say: “The NSW Government has provided an unprecedented level of support to new local councils. “The NSW Government provided new councils with $375 million to implement the mergers and kick start investment in new services and infrastructure for their residents. “New councils in regional areas received $5 million to cover the costs of merging, as well as $10 million for a merger of two councils or $15 million for a merger of three councils, which is to be used for community, services and infrastructure projects.” [post_title] => NSW councils fork out for forced mergers as government funding dries up [post_excerpt] => Councils could petition Berejiklian for shortfall. 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