I accompanied the Mayors of Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Port Stephens and Cessnock on a trip to Canberra last week. The Mayors and the General Managers of each of these Local Government Areas (LGAs), along with executives of Department of Premier and Cabinet, Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation and the Department of Planning and Environment, make up the steering committee for the Greater Newcastle and the Hunter Intergovernmental Partnerships Project, which is a sub-committee of the Hunter Joint Organisation. I was there to represent the LGAs of the Upper Hunter, which are supportive of this project. The aim of the trip to Canberra was to make various Members of Parliament aware of the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan and to garner support from Federal Government for a tripartite agreement between the three levels of government, that is Federal, State and Local. While the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan is centred on the five LGAs mentioned above, the flow-on effects will benefit the whole of the Hunter Region and beyond.
Being the last Parliamentary sitting week for the year, things were a little hectic, with MPs rushing in and out of meetings in order to cast votes. We managed to spend some time with Federal Deputy Leader of the Nationals & Minister for Local Government, Regional Services, Sport and Decentralisation, Senator Bridget McKenzie, who talked about how impressed she was with the work being undertaken by the group, the level of regional collaboration and the unity demonstrated by the group. She also remarked on the timeliness of such a project, as it is similar to the way forward that she has been discussing with her Parliamentary colleagues.
We also met with Shadow Minister for Local Government, Stephen Jones; Shadow Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Cities, Anthony Albanese; Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Joel Fitzgibbon; Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure, Pat Conroy; and some Local Members from the Hunter Region. The overarching message delivered by each of these MPs was that they saw the strength of our regionally collaborative effort.
This same six Mayors will meet this week with Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter, Scot MacDonald, to deliver our message that we want the three levels of government to work together to achieve good outcomes for the Hunter Region and beyond.
Train Timetable Change
In a great win for Dungog businesses and residents, Michael Johnsen has announced that the weekday train timetable will change in April 2019. Day visitors will be able to arrive at 9.50 am and now depart at 3.26 pm. This gives them time to walk, shop and eat in Dungog. Dungog residents with appointments in Maitland will now be able to arrive back in Dungog in time for school pick ups or to catch a lift on the school buses. These services are a reinstatement of the old timetable that was changed in 2014. The change sees the 10.29 am from Newcastle move to a 1.29 pm departure, and the 12.26 pm departure from Dungog move to a 3.26 pm departure. There may be some minor adjustments to the other services from April.
Chamber of Commerce President, Jenny Lewis and Alan Shrimpton have campaigned tirelessly to get the old train timetable reinstated ever since it was changed. I would like to thank Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter, Scot MacDonald, for his intervention and Aaron Spadaro from the Department of Premier and Cabinet and Brad Dickson and Robert Blanch form NSW Trainlink for the work they put in to getting this over the line.
Dowling St Christmas Party Declared a Huge Success
From all accounts, the Dowling St Christmas Party was a hit all round. I spoke to some business owners and plenty of party-goers on the night and they unanimously declared that they had a wonderful night. Congratulations to the Chamber of Commerce, Ivan Skaines and Wendy Farrow from Dungog Shire Council and the VIC volunteers, especially Dawn Redman, who put so much into the preparation for the evening. Thanks to all the businesses that opened late to join in and for the stallholders and to the community members who supported the businesses and stallholders and who embraced the idea of the Dowling St Christmas Party.
Dowling St Upgrade
Please remember that an information night will be held at Doug Walters Pavilion to discuss the two proposals for the Dowling St upgrade. There has been much discussion about this upgrade in the community and more than a little confusion and conjecture. Please come along and get factual information about the two options. Wednesday 12 December between 6pm and 7pm. A Ward Councillors Jan Lyon, John Connors and I will be present along with some Councillors from the other wards.
Meetings this Week
As mentioned, I, along with the five Lower Hunter Mayors, will meet with Parliamentary Secretary Scot MacDonald this week. Dungog Shire Council’s General Manager, Coralie Nichols, and I will also attend the bi-monthly Hunter Joint Organisation meeting.
I will be outside the Gresford School of Arts from 10 am to 1 pm on Saturday 15 December and at the Festival Lounge in Dungog on Monday 17 December from 9 am – 12 noon. Next year we will be trialing a new meeting process, in addition to my mobile office. I will be joined by relevant Council officers on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month in the Chambers meeting room. I will bring you more details on this closer to the implementation date.
A reminder that several important documents are on exhibition at this time. The amended Community Strategic Plan; amended Delivery Program 2018-22; Resourcing Strategy 2018-22; Asset Management Plans and Council’s amended Hardship Policy. These documents do have implications for our residents and rate-payers, so again I strongly encourage you to peruse them and make comment. Submissions will be accepted until 4 pm, Wednesday 19 December.
Other documents on exhibition include two very important reviews of Chapters of the Dungog Shire Development Control Plan. One is specifically for the Cangon Park site south of Dungog. The other has Shire-wide implications regarding building line set-backs. I encourage you to peruse these documents and make comment. These documents will be on exhibition for a minimum 56 days. Council extended the public exhibition period to take into account the busy Christmas period.
Proposed Special Rates Variation (SRV)
At the next Ordinary Meeting of Council (Wednesday 19 December), Councillors will be voting on whether to apply for an SRV and, if so, what the amount of an SRV should be applied for. I’ve heard and seen some comments in the last couple of weeks regarding the proposed SRV. Some farmers have approached me saying they believe they are bearing the brunt of the SRV and they get no services from Council. That they don’t use the garbage service and they have their own water and septic systems. I would like to clarify a few points here.
Firstly, an SRV increase is only applicable to the general rates portion of your rates notice, it does not apply to other fees or charges that may be included on your rate notice. If you live in an area that is not serviced by garbage, then you are not charged for it. If you are serviced by our garbage collection service, then this is a different charge on your rates notice and is not affected by this proposed SRV. Hunter Water Corporation is responsible for water and sewerage services in the parts of the Shire that has mains supply. Therefore, the council rates you are charged do not go towards the supply of water and sewerage.
Approximately 60% of Dungog Shire Council’s total expenditure in 2017/2018 was spent on roads and bridges infrastructure, which is one of the highest percentages of all LGAs in the state. Much of the proposed SRV is to improve our roads infrastructure and timber bridge network. This directly affects all of our residents. Many farmers have suffered from weight-loaded timber bridges and poor roads. I have heard many stories about multiple trips having to be made to bring in feed and not being able to travel the most direct route when transporting cattle to market.
Fire captains express concern to me about not being able to travel the most direct route because of weight limits on many timber bridges. This could be time consuming in the case of a bushfire. Visitors to the Shire write to me, email me and send me Facebook messages on a weekly basis about the poor state of our roads and demand that Council fix them. And residents talk to me about the state of the roads that they have to travel on and the damage to their vehicles that they blame on the state of the roads.
Well-intentioned decisions by some former Councils have contributed to a situation where our rates have been way too low for way too long. This, along with inequitable funding arrangements from successive State and Federal Governments, has lead to our infrastructure backlog and the situation where our roads and timber bridge network require significant work.
We need the correction that this proposed SRV will bring as much as we need equitable funding contributions from the State and Federal Governments. The General Manager and I are working tirelessly lobbying politicians at both levels of government about the need for them to share our community’s heavy lifting. I thank the many community members who have assisted with our lobbying efforts by writing to various State MPs and candidates for the up-coming State Election.
We welcome the funding promise from the Labor Opposition Leader, Michael Daley, and the discussions that we had around Clarence Town’s Brig O’ Johnson Bridge. We also welcome the promised review into roads classification and into the distribution of Federal Assistance Grants funding, which is inequitable to smaller regional and rural councils. We also welcome the fact that, just three weeks into the job, Mr. Daley came to Dungog to make the announcement in person.
I am confident that the State Government is close to announcing funding assistance to Dungog Shire Council as well. I have recently repeated my invitation to the Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, to visit Dungog Shire.
Council acknowledges that any rate rise may impact upon some community members. Council’s response to this has been to review our Hardship Policy, with assistance from the NSW Office of Local Government, so that we can sensitively and confidentially provide assistance to individuals who may experience difficulties paying their rates.
The proposed SRV is not the silver bullet, rather, a raft of strategies need to be implemented to secure a positive and sustainable future for Dungog Shire. We understand the need to partner State and Federal Government and their departments, and we are working closely on this strategy. We need regional partners, such as the other nine LGAs that make up the Hunter Joint Organisation. We are talking to our neighbours about ways that we can partner them more closely. Hunter Joint Organisation members already share many services, however, there are still opportunities that have yet to be explored and we are talking to the other members about opportunities, such as planning, IT and shared staffing arrangements.
We have almost completed our new developer contributions plan, which will assist with some funding for appropriate infrastructure projects. It will also make it much easier for our staff and for developers to work through the complex legislation. We are working on our Rural Lands Strategy to identify the prime agricultural land that should be protected, and also identifying more marginal land that may have other commercial or residential uses. We are planning further rationalisation of council assets and have commenced a structural reorganisation. All of these strategies must be implemented to assure a better future for Dungog Shire. The proposed SRV is an essential piece of the improvement plan.
Regards Tracy Norman
Dungog Shire Mayor
10 December 2018