Just two days before Ku-ring-gai Council went head to head with Hornsby Council in the NSW Court of Appeal over whether the two councils should amalgamate, new state Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the State Government will continue with its forced mergers between the two councils.
It forced the legal action Ku-ring-gai is taking to stop the forced merger to carry on, something Ku-ring-gai was hoping to avoid. They now await a judicial decision which could take months.
While 80% of Ku-ring-gai ratepayers oppose the merger and many ratepayers in both areas in the dark about what’s happening right now, the Monthly Chronicle asked both Mayors about the current state of play.
FOR A MERGER – STEVE RUSSELL, MAYOR OF HORNSBY
On the Premier’s February decision to push through the merger: Hornsby Council has supported reform since the Government’s initial announcement, as our independent investigations have revealed the significant economic benefits that will be gained. The past few weeks have been quite tense as speculation ran rife that the Government might back away from the proposal.
It would have been a tragic waste of an opportunity for our ratepayers and the taxpayers of NSW – we commend the Government for sticking to their guns.
There are some very vocal critics to amalgamation, but those people are mainly protecting their vested interests and do not speak for everybody. I hope we can now work with Ku-ring-gai Council to reach a sensible resolution that will benefit all ratepayers sooner rather than later.
On the court case: The residents of both Hornsby and Ku-ring-gai will be the biggest losers.
Why merge? Hornsby Council has studied the figures and we are convinced that amalgamation is in the best interests of both communities. We have commissioned a number of independent studies that outline the significant benefits of the proposed merger with Ku-ring-gai and we know the amalgamation would deliver $20m a year in savings for both councils.
We have supported the NSW Government’s plan for amalgamation and we continue to do so. Both Hornsby and Ku-ring-gai are ridiculously out-dated local government territories, with boundaries drawn up in the days of horse-drawn transport and telegram communication.
We now stand in the 21st century and the duplication of services is wasting a vast amount of money – money that could be put to far better use serving our ratepayers.
On the loss of Epping from Hornsby’s jurisdiction: Hornsby Shire Council was always opposed to the loss of Epping to Parramatta. We argued against the loss of suburbs south of the M2, which had always been part of our Shire, and we were very disappointed by the NSW Government’s decision. But we accepted that decision because the bigger picture led to larger councils and immense savings for ratepayers.
If we lose Epping and gain nothing in return, we will transform from one of the most efficient councils in NSW to one that will struggle to meet all of our community needs.
And if the merger doesn’t happen?: If the amalgamation does not go ahead, the suburbs south of the M2 should be returned to Hornsby Shire where they belong. Meanwhile, the people of Hornsby should be compensated for the financial losses caused by the Government’s inability to finish what it started.
AGAINST A MERGER – JENNIFER ANDERSON, KU-RING-GAI MAYOR
On the Premier’s February decision to push through the merger: Myself and my councillors are particularly aggrieved that regional councils, many which met none of the Government’s criteria to stand alone, are now not being forced to merge. Yet Ku-ring-gai, which met all of the State Government’s seven criteria for financial stability, is still proposed to be forcibly merged with Hornsby Shire. Both are already large councils with populations far in excess of 100,000 residents.
On the legal action: I am against court action personally but the council has voted in favour of taking court action and as the Mayor, I have to abide by that. This is the appeal of the original Land and Environment Court judgement. Two days were allocated for hearing both sides and the judge reserved his decision. He will come back and announce his decision, based on the law, not what the Government is telling him. The next stage – if we decide to go that way – is to go to the High Court.
On the cost of going to court: We have a budget allocated for it and we are still within budget. When the court action concludes we can publish how much we have spent. If we reach the limit of our budget allocation, our staff would go to council and seek a new resolution to either cease action or ask for an extension of this budget.
On not disclosing the legal costs: When you’re in the middle of legal action it could prejudice your position if you let people know where the money is, at the moment. If your opposition know what you’ve spent, they might have an advantage.
Any ratepayer levy over legal action? There is no intention of any levy on residents with regard to paying for the legal action.
Why would a merger be so bad? Not all mergers are bad – it depends on the council and each one impacts on its population differently. However if we merged, the new council would go from urban Roseville up to rural isolated Wisemans Ferry – and a very geographically varied area and a disparity of communities and interests that would prove quite difficult.
We also have different land values coming into play. Rates in NSW are based on land values and our land values are higher than in Hornsby, so our ratepayers would pay a larger proportion of rates across the local government area – we estimate a 30% increase for Ku-ring-gai ratepayers.
The proposed new council of six councillors from the Ku-ring-gai area and nine from the Hornsby area would see little to no capacity for future decisions over Ku-ring-gai to be made by its own elected representatives.
We also have set services – Hornsby has a different set and these would have to be merged and service levels would have to be decreased to match and either someone would lose out in reduced services or people would have to pay more.
The proposed council would be over 250,000 people with the Hornsby Shire largely rural and river land whereas Ku-ring-gai is an urban area with strong links to the city. There are quite different communities of interest. Clearly, a one size fits all model across Sydney is equally problematic in our case.
Next month both share their objectives for 2017 and beyond.