A NSW shire council roughly the size of Tasmania and with a population of only 2,000 has had its councillors suspended by local government minister and Byron Bay resident Don Page.
Councillors in the Central Darling Shire, located in the state’s far west, were suspended just before Christmas.
It’s the first use of new ‘early intervention’ legislation which was introduced in NSW parliament earlier in 2013.
The suspension only affects elected councillors, not staff, and comes after NSW Treasury claimed the council was in a ‘very weak and deteriorating’ financial position.
Mr Page says he ‘bypassed the option of giving the council an order to improve because of the dire state of the council’s finances.’
But mayor of Central Darling, Ray Longfellow, told The Echo that despite clear and early warnings of financial difficulty to Mr Page’s department, support was not forthcoming.
‘Nothing came out of the meetings we had with the department of local government,’ he said, ‘despite all meetings being instigated by us.
‘Our suggestion was instead of getting in an administrator, we needed advisers. With an administrator, you sit on the outside rather than being involved,’ he said.
But Mr Page told The Echo that the Central Darling councillors told him in June this year, ‘they were budgeting for a surplus of over $1m for 2013/14.’ In September they told me they would break even. In late November they told me they wouldn’t be able to pay their wages prior to Christmas.
‘They had no plan to manage their finances, despite employing very highly paid external consultants, other than for some other tier of government to bail them out.
‘Their bank would not extend further credit so we had no option but to appoint an administrator.’
However, the issue is about state and federal funding, says Mr Longfellow.
‘Over a period of time, the funding by both the federal and state governments have become insufficient. We have a huge network of roads to maintain. The money has being drying up over the last ten years. We can’t increase our rate base; we rely heavily on grant money to operate.’
Mr Page added that Central Darling Shire Council’s case was unique, ‘and the government is not currently considering the use of the temporary suspension powers on any other council at this time’.
According to www.governmentnews.com.au, a number of other local governments are also understood to be ‘skirting close intervention on the ministerial watch list.’