Port Stephens vote on Dungog merger: recommendation urges help for a fee

ADVICE: Port Stephens Council general manager Wayne Wallis has advised councillors to shift away from a merger towards a strategic alliance.
ADVICE: Port Stephens Council general manager Wayne Wallis has advised councillors to shift away from a merger towards a strategic alliance.

PORT Stephens councillors have been urged to rule out a merger with Dungog in favour of a “strategic alliance” this week, potentially offering their neighbour help at a price to insulate its own ratepayers from any extra costs.

The elected councillors will weigh up a report from general manager Wayne Wallis, which recommends they tell their financially-embattled neighbour they “have no interest in pursuing a voluntary merger proposal”. 

Mayor Ryan Palmer said that if the recommendation goes ahead Port Stephens Council would instead explore ways they could offer services “at a cost to Dungog” that could help them.

He pointed to information technology and planning services as potential examples Port Stephens may help with, noting that other Hunter councils could also lend a hand. “Whatever Dungog needs,” he said. “The argument was put forward by the previous council that we should be a good neighbour and merge with them.

“This is a way to be a good neighbour and help them out [and] it will be at no cost to Port Stephens ratepayers.”

Mr Wallis’ report details a Morrison Low business case prepared in 2016 when the state government was planning to forge ahead with mergers. At the time the cost of merging Dungog and Port Stephens was determined at $2.4 million over nine years, including a $5 million state government grant to cover costs of amalgamation. 

A $10 million grant would also have been made available at the time, which could have eaten into the $41.7 million asset backlog the combined entity would have faced at the time. 

“As this business case is now outdated, if council were to agree to progress with any merger discussions a new business case would need to be prepared to inform council on current merger costs and implications,” Mr Wallis wrote. “Discussions to progress potential service and resource sharing … can be undertaken within existing resources at this time.”

The concept stems from a November 9 letter from Dungog mayor Tracy Norman suggesting the discussion of resource sharing “or the possibility of outsourcing certain functions of Dungog Shire Council to Port Stephens. 

Cr Norman said on Sunday that services for fees could be a stepping stone for Dungog, and any certainty could lead to taking new steps for the shire’s future. 

“There’s no silver bullet in any of this, it’s a matter of incremental change,” she said. “Regardless of which way it goes through, it will give us some level of certainty.”

A slim majority of Dungog voters backed a merger at last year’s election, with 52.9 per cent voting Dungog should not stand alone.

More than three-quarters of voters cast ballots against a marriage with Maitland City Council, with 55.4 per cent supporting overtures to Port Stephens.

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