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June 22, 2021

Rous Water driving merger proposal

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Lismore City Council (LCC) will support the structural reform of three county councils despite several councillors saying that the report calling for the reform is flawed and favours Rous Water.

Rous Water, Far North Coast Weeds (FNCW) and Richmond River County Council (RRCC) would be merged into a single entity if the reforms, recommended by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), go ahead.

But there are concerns among some councillors that the UTS report is flawed and an amalgamation may completely focus on administration and not services.

At last Tuesday’s meeting Cr Isaac Smith, who put forward the motion for structural reform, said that this outcome could create the ‘best natural resource management council in NSW’. He was however, quick to identify flaws in the UTS report.

‘This report has some serious errors that I think should be drawn out… it concerns me that an organisation of this standing should give nine options and omit three. One of these was the amalgamation of the two smaller county councils (RRCC and FNCW), which would lead to a cost saving of around $100,000 per year.

‘These are the two natural-resource management councils, which would leave the water supply council to itself. This was suggested in the workshop with UTS so why was this not considered in the report? I guess they chose not to, or at the behest of Rous, perhaps.’

Cr Smith made further suggestion that ‘council go back to UTS and Rous and say that we want to better deliver services to the people who look to RRCC, FNCW and Rous. We want a survey and consultation done that would lead to better outcomes.

‘That will in itself lead to structural reform.’

Cr Ekins showed her concerns over the amalgamation of the three county councils and the process in which UTS produced their report.

‘This is a complete focus on administration, which has been driven by the general manager of Rous, Mr Kyme Lavelle, who is concerned about the number of reports he has to write and the number of meetings he has to go to.

‘The report that was commissioned by RRCC and FNCW on an alternative administrative model says that they are possibly being over-serviced and that more consultation is needed.

‘My concern is that when the consultation was done by this UTS project, their consultants talked to the general managers and the mayors of the county councils. They did not speak to a single person who does any work on the ground implementing the services.

‘I found that very top-heavy. If you are serious about adaptive management or restructure you should do it from the ground up.’

Cr Ekins continued with her concerns. ‘The water authority priorities will be more important than the services and activities that the other two offer. RRCC and FNCW could be marginalised.’

Cr Chant made it very clear that both FNCW and RRCC delegates are against the amalgamation with Rous. He also relayed some history.

‘This amalgamation between Rous, RRCC and FNCW started by Phil Silver when he was president of Rous. I believe Phil Silver, now the current mayor of Ballina, and the general manager of Rous, Kym Lavelle, are driving this.’

Cr Graham said that the amalgamation of the three county councils was being investigated four years ago.

‘In my first 12 months with RRCC, we recognised that we need to consolidate our costs as our administration costs were slowly getting out of control. When we looked deeper, it was all about Rous.

‘So we are getting top-heavy in the water department; we need to trim some of that – not trim what I see as a potential major trim of RRCC, which does a fantastic job. So do FNC Weeds, but they are restrained as they don’t earn money like they used to with contract spraying.’

Cr Houston advised council that ‘this is about services. FNCW were never about making money. They have been doing terrific extension work, getting great information out there so people can self-manage. That is valuable.’

Cr Graham continued the debate by declaring, ‘RRCC have money available for projects. There is not a lot of money with FNCW and I also understand that Rous does not have any money. That is a concern for me for the overall amalgamation of these three processes.

‘Rous is an income-producing body that charges the other shires […] for water usage and services. The other two are different beasts. They don’t have the ability at this point to earn income for themselves, relying only on grants and funding, so they should be treated differently from Rous.’

Ballina Council has deferred their support whilst Byron Shire Council is still undecided.

Cr Meineke asked, ‘What happens if all four constituent councils end up with nothing specific… who will take the initiative and do something about it?’

Mayor Jenny Dowell said it was possible that ‘something [could] be recommended or even imposed from the Destination 2036 local government review’.

‘… if there is no pro-activity here then it may be determined externally,’ she added.

Cr Battista asked why LCC couldn’t give more specific direction to all constituent councils in this matter and take some lead.

‘We know we need to amalgamate something because of the costs. The most reasonable solution would be to bring FNC Weeds and RRCC together and keep Rous separate until something else comes up that would suggest the three go together.’

Cr Smith added, ‘This has been initially instigated by Rous so I have not suggested anything more specific as it is not our position to do that on behalf of any of the county councils’.


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