Singleton Shire Council's just been upgraded, but no-one knows why

A NSW tribunal decision that could cost Singleton ratepayers an extra $100,000 a year in councillor fees – and more than double mayor Sue Moore’s take-home pay to nearly $62,000 – could be challenged after questions about the council upgrade that bumped up councillor pay.

Singleton Shire Council was upgraded to “regional rural” status in a Local Government Remuneration Tribunal decision in April that included big increases to Newcastle and Lake Macquarie councillor pay linked to council status upgrades. The tribunal upgrades followed the controversial NSW local government amalgamation process.

While the coastal council upgrades received publicity, it is the tribunal’s Singleton upgrade – with a councillor pay boost from $8750 to $19,310 per year, and mayor Sue Moore’s from $27,380 to $61,430 – that has raised questions about the assessment process, led by Cr Moore.

Singleton was rated a regional rural council to rank alongside Maitland, Cessnock and Port Stephens, while its neighbour Muswellbrook was rated a lower rural council, despite Muswellbrook having the regional facilities Singleton lacks.

Singleton did not apply for the upgrade which came as “a total surprise to us”, Cr Moore said, and the additional costs, if approved by councillors, will have to be found within the budget.

Cr Moore said the upgrade meant Singleton was now “a small fish in a big pond” where it was previously happy being “a big fish in a small pond”, and agreed Muswellbrook had a much greater claim to regional rural status than Singleton based on the concentration of regional services in Muswellbrook.

“You wonder how the tribunal made this decision because these sorts of things (regional facilities) are clearly more Muswellbrook-based,” she said.

In its 25-page report the tribunal said it considered population, the sphere of the council’s economic influence and the “degree of regional servicing” when placing councils in new categories prompted by a drop from 152 councils in NSW to 128 because of the 2016 amalgamations.

You wonder how the tribunal made this decision because these sorts of things (regional facilities) are clearly more Muswellbrook-based.

Singleton mayor Sue Moore

The tribunal said councils ranked as regional rural would typically have a minimum population of 20,000; a major town with the area’s largest commercial component and surrounded by smaller towns; have “higher order” arts, culture, recreation and entertainment centres, and regional hospitals, tertiary education services and major regional airports.

While Singleton has a population of nearly 24,000 compared with Muswellbrook’s 17,000, Muswellbrook has a regional hospital and police centre, a major TAFE campus, contributes considerable council funds to support a regional art gallery and music conservatorium and is the base for Upper Hunter Community Services. The Upper Hunter’s regional airport is at Scone.

Muswellbrook and Singleton councils’ annual budgets are roughly the same. While Muswellbrook has a large and growing satellite town in Denman, Singleton’s satellite town is Jerrys Plains with a population of a few hundred people.

Cr Moore said the only criteria Singleton met was to have a bigger population than Muswellbrook.

Tribunal author Dr Robert Lang said the tribunal wrote to all councils in November about the proposed category changes and criteria and received 28 submissions.

Dr Lang said he relied on assessors Ian Reynolds and Tim Hurst to make recommendations about which categories councils should be placed in.

Cr Moore said Singleton councillors had to vote in the next two weeks on whether to accept the new pay scales that come with the regional rural status, but advice to council was that if councillors rejected the proposal their pay would go to the new minimum, which is several thousand dollars a year less than councillors currently receive.

The new status and pay scales come into effect on July 1. The tribunal recommendations can be appealed.