No need for Illawarra council mergers: panel

Councils in the Illawarra should never have been considered for amalgamations, Shellharbour Mayor Marianne Saliba said yesterday.

In welcome news for the region’s councils, the body charged with reviewing the sector has concluded no amalgamations are needed here.

The final report of the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel was made public yesterday and said the Illawarra’s councils were functioning sustainably. While  mergers were recommended for some councils in the Sydney and Hunter regions,  there was no case for joining Wollongong, Shellharbour or Kiama.

Ms Saliba said there was no need for merging Illawarra councils, as they already worked well co-operatively.

‘‘The Illawarra should never have been considered for amalgamations,’’ she said.

Wollongong council chambers.

Wollongong council chambers.

‘‘We work very co-operatively down here and we’ve got a good relationship with our surrounding councils.’’

The panel found that while the Illawarra faced major economic and social challenges, the councils were financially sustainable, and existing boundaries did not pose major  problems. It found Shellharbour council had a moderately negative financial outlook, but had applied for a rate rise.

Ms Saliba said the financial difficulties identified were largely caused by the NSW government’s rate-pegging policy, which hampered councils’ ability to raise funds. She said the policy should be scrapped.

‘‘I believe that’s what’s hampered us most in the Illawarra,’’ she said.

‘‘That’s a decision the state government’s going to have to make. At some stage, they’re going to have to stop playing Big Brother and let local government stand on its own two feet.’’

Ms Saliba said the government should also implement another of the panel’s recommendations – allowing direct election of mayors for council areas with more than 40,000 people.

The recommendations do not mean the end of possibilities of amalgamations in the Illawarra. The report is open for public comment until March 7, after which the government will decide what action to take. To find the report, go to dlg.nsw.gov.au and follow the links to ‘‘panel and taskforce final reports’’.

The Mercury sought comment from Wollongong Deputy Mayor Chris Connor.

The government’s approach was criticised by the Local Government Association of NSW, which said the consultation period was too short, given many councils do not meet until February.

‘‘The minister’s had the review panel’s report for nearly three months; we’ve had it for three minutes,’’ association president Keith Rhoades said.

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