Forced council mergers have failed to deliver promised efficiency, savings and equality for ratepayers across merged council areas, a damning report by the NSW Auditor-General has found.
Auditor-General Margaret Crawford’s report, obtained by The Weekly Times, has also found problems with poor community consultation, surplus staffing and service delivery in forced merger councils.
The report focused on the Inner West Council, the Snowy Monaro Council and Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council.
It justifies previous warnings about the impact of forced mergers raised in The Weekly Times and by Hunters Hill Council and Lane Cove Council, which were targeted for a forced merger with the City of Ryde.
That plan was later scrapped by Premier Gladys Berejiklian, following legal action and community protests.
The protests warned of preferential treatment for City of Ryde at the expense of its two smaller neighbours.
Confirming those concerns were legitimate, the Crawford Report found some merged council areas were being serviced better than others.
“At the time of the audit, different service levels inherited from the former councils mean that some ratepayers of the amalgamated council are receiving a higher level of service than others,” Ms Crawford said.
The report blamed local government laws for “slowing progress towards an efficient council structure” with restrictions on the ability of council to sack surplus staff, with ratepayers left to pick up the bill to employ staff they do not need.
“These protections have impacted upon councils’ ability to plan for or realise benefits from amalgamation during the protection period,” Ms Crawford said.
Also in line with warnings from Hunters Hill and Lane Cove about communication with ratepayers, the audit found that merged councils need to review their service levels in consultation with communities to get the best and fairest outcome.
The report concludes with a warning that inconsistent business processes prevent councils from achieving internal efficiencies while councils struggle to manage multiple complex and overlapping systems.
“Until systems and data are integrated, extra staff are also needed to perform some functions that require the use of systems and data from the former councils,” Ms Crawford said.
Expected savings in areas that include streamlined payrolls were also found to be inconsistent across council areas, with some staff paid weekly and others fortnightly.
Councils that had strongly opposed the mergers from the outset, criticised the plan as undemocratic, lacking in proper community consultation genuine, while its purported benefits had no evidentiary basis.
Their collective legal challenges inflicted irreparable damage on the unpopular and divisive forced mergers campaign and humiliation ultimately came in the form of court-awarded costs in their favour.
Retaliation – for Lane Cove, Hunters Hill, Mosman and Strathfield councils -was an extended delay of 18 months in recouping their costs.
An investigation by The Weekly Times in February found the Berejiklian Government had dragged its feet attending to costs orders made by the NSW Court of Appeal and the Land and Environment Court in July 2017.
The government quietly settled the debts on the eve of the March state election and didn’t publicly announce the delayed reimbursement, with its solicitors also ensuring each council received less than what it had claimed.
If there is good news it is not being told by the forged merger councils.
“The Inner West Council and Snowy Monaro Regional Council have not been clearly linking their reform initiatives with expected savings and efficiencies in public reporting,” the report notes.
Despite all three councils implementing change management programs for staff, they are nonetheless finding it “difficult to cope” with the changes, the audit says.
In their response to the audit, the Inner West Council blamed the State Government and said it “did not adequately prepare for amalgamation” and “forced” them upon the community.