Editorial: Move to wait on merger a risk for ratepayers

On Tuesday night, an angry Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen said he’d had enough.

It was time for his own government to step in, sack the council, and appoint an administrator.

It was, he said, the best thing for the Dungog community.

He was speaking as a local member, and the silence on Wednesday from his government – Local Government Minister Gabrielle Upton declined to comment when approached by the Newcastle Herald – suggests that it is unlikely to happen.

So, if the council is to run its full term – another three months – what is likely to be the end result?

Well, the majority of councillors, based on the vote on Tuesday, want the residents to decide by way of a poll at the next election.

The plan, as it has been laid out, is for the council to review its options – essentially, merge with one of either Port Stephens and Maitland or stand alone – and hold some form of plebiscite in conjunction with the election.

There is risk with this strategy though, and it’s a risk that opposing councillors have pointed out. What is the likelihood of either Maitland or Port Stephens deciding, just after the first election in five years, to sack themselves, merge, and vote again?

It’s a big risk, because if the residents vote in favour of merger that can’t go ahead, the new Dungog council – whoever it might be made up of – is instantly at odds with the will of its community.

They’ll also be stuck with a council bottom line that reads like a house of horrors.

While there’s some hope of other cash sources, mostly from financial assistance grants, the reality is rate rises.

The figure of 13 per cent for six years has been well reported by now, but it’s also worth remembering that with indexation it ends up being a 108 per cent increase over the period.

Part of the reason is environmental. Dungog has a $40 million infrastructure backlog, its assets are ageing or in many cases at the end of their useful life, and it only brings in about $5 million in rates. 

But it’s also historical. When the former Wran Labor government introduced rate pegging in 1976, Dungog was in the grip of a drought, and rates were kept low to avoid placing additional stress on landholders.

Now they’re paying the price, but that’s certain to change.

ISSUE: 38,494

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