BY JOHN MOYLE
In 2016 the Baird Government did an embarrassing backflip over NSW council amalgamations, resulting in only 19 of the 35 proposed mergers going ahead.
The only inner city amalgamation to proceed was between Leichhardt, Ashfield and Marrickville councils, as all others fought or escaped when Baird’s plans fell into a malodorous heap.
In May 2016, the new Inner West Council was created and locked into the Baird Government plans, as some of its own councillors say, without any clear objectives on how the three separate entities with different administrative, financial and operational cultures would come together.
According Inner West independent councillor John Stamolis, this was the beginning of the ‘merge splurge’.
“We went up for administration in May 2016 and from that point on the whole process of amalgamation commenced,” Councillor Stamolis said. “The administrator put in place a program on how to get the merger done, and obviously the budgets on how to get the merger done.
The Inner West councillors never received a report on how this was to be done and what was the basis for it,” he added.
The Government-appointed administrator was from Morrison Low, a firm consulting to government, local government and financial services.
Among the other councillor expressing concerns over the merger and how it was done is Pauline Lockie, an Inner West independent and former councillor for the Stanmore ward.
“The concern that I’ve got with the merger is that it is hard to get a complete picture of what it is like,” she told City Hub. “I’ve called for information on how service levels will work after the merger was done, and I have reports from staff that it is quite difficult to get a lot of this information.”
The Baird government’s original forecast for the merger, via Morrison Low, was $44.5 million, with a state government contribution.
“As part of this commitment, the NSW Government provided Inner West with $10 million towards the cost of its amalgamation from the New Council Implementation Fund and $15 million from its Stronger Communities Fund for infrastructure and service improvements for the local community,” a spokeswoman for Gabrielle Upton, Local Government Minister, said.
Councillor Stamolis is questioning not only the merger’s viability, but also an apparent lack of transparency.
“The merger is very opaque and it is not clear to our public what the timer fames are and what the major projects are,” he said.
“We have nothing that we can show our public and the process has not been as clear and open as to why we merged, and there have been no public reports detailing the expenses to date.”
When City Hub approached Inner West Council for comment, a spokesperson replied “Council remains on schedule and within budget against merger milestones,” adding, ”the final merger implementation costs are not yet known… but are expected to remain well below the levels originally forecast by Morrison Low ($44.5m) on behalf of the former councils prior to merger.”
At its meeting on 12 October 2017, Inner West Council tabled a progress report outline levels of comparisons pre-and post merger.
To say that it is scant on comparative information might be taken as an understatement, but it does give a snapshot across the Council’s progress.
The report states that there are challenges extracting data for comparison from the three main council centres, mainly because much of the data has to be aligned manually.
“As indicated, the three former councils not only had three disparate systems, each had developed their own criteria and services standards, along with their own monitoring and reporting frameworks,” the report states.
For example, depending on the nature of the enquiry, response times to act on requests differ across the old wards.
In Ashfield it is an average of 10 days, Leichhardt, 20 days and Marrickville up to 35 days.
“It is anecdotal evidence, but I am getting complaints from people in my old ward that they feel their service levels have dropped since the merger,” Cr Lockie said.
The Council’s Progress Reports claim that of the 726 actions in the Operational Plan, 85 per cent, or 528, were completed or progressing.
Council’s Chief Financial and Administration Report states that 61 per cent of all actions were completed, 14 per cent of actions were made redundant and 1per cent were not progressing.
In other areas the Council appears to be performing well.
Results show that now the backlog of DAs from the three former councils have been cleared and staff across the council area are getting used to a single system, DA processing times have been reduced.
But nothing in the report will satisfy Councillor Stamolis.
“It covers some of the key tasks, but it is not comprehensive, and in a lot of cases, it is not comparative and it does not include any benefits out of the merger program,” he said.
Inner West admits that it has been “challenging to obtain true comparisons points for pre and post -merger performance levels.”
Both councillors Stamolis and Lockie point to over all staff losses contributing to lessening Council’s ability to deliver services.
“We’ve lost two of our three general managers and seven out of 11 of our directors, along with plan and budgets,” Cr Stamolis said.
“Our wages are frozen and money for new infrastructure has been locked at the same level since 2009 as a direct result of the merger and this presents a huge budget challenge,” Cr Lockie said.
As Inner West Council moves into its second year since amalgamation there have clearly been losses and gains.
“If the merger stays it has to deliver the things that were promised, ”Cr Lockie said.
It is now time for the Council to respond to its own members’ and the public’s call for definitive budgets across all areas of operations, and to clarify the benefits of the merger in an open and transparent manner.
Councillor Vittoria Raciti was contacted for this article.