As Dungog Shire Council prepares to contemplate its future at an extraordinary meeting on May 1, Mayor Harold Johnston has moved to dispel what he has labelled “fake facts” in the debate.
The meeting at the Doug Walters Pavilion is expected to attract a large public gallery as the council considers its future – namely a voluntarily amalgamation offer from Port Stephens Council.
While the State Government quashed forced council mergers earlier this year, Dungog Shire, which has been deemed “not fit for the future”, is yet to make a decision on the merger offer from Port Stephens.
A Dungog council delegation met with Deputy Premier John Barilaro last month to ascertain what future funding would be available to the council – either standing alone or in a voluntary amalgamation.
At the time of the Chronicle going to press, council had not received answers from the Government.
Mayor Johnston told Fairfax he acknowledged many people were confused about the merger issue and encouraged residents to take an interest in the matter “as it will vitally affect the lives of the Shire's children and grandchildren”.
He said there were a number of “fake facts” circulating in the debate, including rate increases and that council was “broke”.
“Dungog Shire Councillors have never considered, much less resolved, to increase rates by 13 per cent per year for the next six years if we remain independent,” he said.
“Dungog Council is, and always has been mindful of the stresses of rising rates. Council has approximately $14 million in reserved funds, and is one of the lowest borrowed councils per capita in the state.”
The Mayor rejected the idea there would be a tourism benefit from the merger and that a merger with Maitland was off the table.
“As demonstrated across Australia multiple times, coastal and rural tourism require different approaches.
“Faced with a forced merger, Maitland nominated Dungog as their preferred partner.
“Since forced amalgamations were put off the table, it will be up to Dungog Council to make an approach.”
Meanwhile, the Dungog Shire Residents Group has a different view from the Mayor.
The group has paid for a full page advertisement in this week’s Chronicle.
The group comprises the Paterson Progress Association, the Gresford Community Group, a diverse group of Dungog township residents and members of the Clarence Town Progress Association.
On 1 March, the group met with the Premier’s Senior Policy Advisor, the Deputy Premier, State Member Michael Johnsen and the Minister for Local Government.
Brian Farmer from the group said it was “time for clear and resolute action”.
“The time for further delay and procrastination is over,” he said.
“It is time for our Councillors to accept that our Council cannot ‘stand alone’.
“A merger is therefore inevitable.
“Maitland Council does not want to merge with Dungog Council. Port Stephens Council does want to merge with Dungog Council.
“Properly handled, there is Government financial support for such a voluntary merger.
“There is clear community support for a Dungog Port Stephens merger.
“If Council does not now act in the interests of its community, Council will undoubtedly fail in the near future.
“It will be an absolute travesty if our existing Council area is then split into four areas each to be merged into adjoining Council areas.”
Mr Farmer urged the community to attend the council meeting on May 1.