Like all 29 Tasmanian Councils, Kingborough has been asked to consider its future collaboration with its neighbours.

That can be anything from sharing services to full amalgamation.

This isn't the first time the Tasmanian Government has asked Councils to consider merging, and it won't be the last.

Everyone seems to agree 29 Councils is too many, but no one can (yet) agree on the best model for what local government should look like.

The process outlined by the Local Government Minister, Peter Gutwein, is is completely voluntary.  Councils do not even need to discuss it, although most appear to be choosing to at least have the conversation.

I want to cover a few issues here broadly with the statewide voluntary amalgamation process and then move to the southern context and specifically Kingborough Council's completely broken policy.

 

Criteria for amalgamation

Minister Gutwein has outlined his guiding principles for the discussions, and said any change must:

  • be in the interests of rate payers;
  • improve the level of services to communities;
  • preserve and maintain local representation; and
  • ensure that the financial status of the entities is strengthened.

This is farcical and sets the process up for failure. 

The principles set the bar so high that no merger will be able to claim (or prove) they would occur.   

While the criteria are reasonable objectives of local government, they are unlikely to ever be mutually achieved by any one merger proposition.

For example, I fail to see how local government representation could ever be maintained under a merger arrangement.   Rather, the amalgamation 'vision' is that residents might willing to have less local representation if it is a trade-off for lower rate rises and/or improved services.

Likewise, while improving services at the same time as you lower rates is the holy grail for any local government representative, it's unlikely to be achieved simultaniously.

 

Positive start to the discussion from most of Hobart's major Councils

Hobart

Initiated discussions with Clarence, Glenorchy and Kingborough and allocated $50,000 towards amalgamation analysis.

Clarence

Has advised the Minister it is willing to explore merger options with neighbouring Councils and has written to those Councils.

Glenorchy

Has set out an approach that involves talking to its community, talking to all other Tasmanian Councils and Council Authorities.

Kingborough

????

 

Kingborough's merger mess

Unfortunately, Kingborough Council struggled to achieve a position on its next steps for Council merger talks at its April meeting and finished with no decision at all. It will now reconvene on Monday 4 May to have another attempt at identifying its next steps forward.

The proposed motion and amendment were both voted down with key issues being:

  • Kingborough's longstanding position that it would prefer to talk to the Huon Valley about merger opportunities.
  • Huon Valley Council's already stated objection to exploring amalgamation options with Kingborough (or anyone else).
  • Concern over the prospect of losing the opportunity to explore options with Hobart City Council.
  • Uncertainty over the cost of exploring amalgamation opportunities.

In my opinion, the heart of the problem is the poorly worded, confused, closed policy adopted by a Kingborough Council motion at its January meeting.

That the report of the General Manager be received and that Council reaffirm its long standing policy position (circa May 2012) and:

(a) confirms that Council is not opposed to the prospect of amalgamation with its preferred position being the creation of a new Council with Kingston as the administrative centre taking in the area currently occupied by the Kingborough and Huon Valley municipalities – an area which is predominately rural, has common interests and with a rate base that will be financially sustainable;

(b) would welcome the opportunity to further explore shared services with other southern councils.

While the policy does not explicitly rule out ever talking to Hobart about mergers or resource sharing, it does prejudice any future work which might show Kingborough residents would be better off under a merger with Hobart.

It is important to note here that I have not found too many advocates for simply combining Hobart and Kingborough. Amalgamation options would likely look at moving urban, northern sections of Kingborough into Hobart City Council and leaving the remaining areas to either merge with Huon Valley or to exist on its own.

Option 3 in the Munroe Report looks at the greater Hobart option, for example.

However, without doing the analysis Kingborough Council will never actually know if those proposals are viable or in the best interests of residents.

There has been little or no community consultation about the policy and that is particularly disappointing.

 

Summary

It is important Kingborough Council acts in the best interests of rate payers and I don't believe its current policy allows that.

Kingborough needs to investigate all options and that includes talking to both Hobart and the Huon Valley.

The frustrating thing about this debate is the reluctance of local government members across the State to consider options where their own Council ceases to exist.  Everyone agrees that 29 Councils is too many, but it seems hardly anyone is prepared to concede it might be in everyone's best interests for their municipality to be taken over.

Brighton only wants to merge with its smaller neighbours to the north, Launceston wants take over the small Councils in its surrounds and Kingborough is only willing to speak to the Huon Valley in the south.  The common theme is that Councils are eager to take over their smaller neighbours, but there's no appetite for seeing their own Council eaten up.

I would be more than happy to vote myself out of a job if it is in the best interests of residents.  I see our municipality's character and community spirit as being an organic one based around suburbs, townships, schools, churches and clubs, not local government.

I don’t know what the best option for Kingborough residents is. But I’d argue that no one does yet. The analysis needs to be done and that requires Council to change its policy and be open to all options.

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