By TONY FOSTER
THE community could be excused for thinking that local government is in trouble with all the talk of council amalgamations, inquiries and questions being asked by the Local Government Office.
While there may be difficulties with a small number of councils, these are essentially differences between elected members rather than administrators or officers, and on the whole, local government in Tasmania is working extremely well.
I think it is fair to say that, overwhelmingly, councils are serving ratepayers and their communities very well, providing essential services and a broad range of facilities and amenities.
Nevertheless, however isolated, the recent public criticism and infighting at some councils has only served to generally trash the brand of local government. This is unfortunate and I would argue, unfair to the vast majority of aldermen, councillors and local government employees around Tasmania who are working hard to do the best job they possibly can.
I know that at Brighton Council, we don’t always agree on every issue, but we operate very effectively. I am confident that every councillor and all employees of Brighton Council are genuinely working as hard as possible and continually developing initiatives to benefit our community. And I am sure this is the case at all Tasmanian councils.
The Tasmanian Common Services Joint Venture is just one example of local government introducing initiatives to best serve ratepayers. This sees councils sharing common services, such as planning, asset management and financial services as part of a joint venture arrangement, and it will collectively save their ratepayers more than $1 million this financial year.
This, for an estimated annual operational cost of just $40,000, is met by participating councils based on usage. The total establishment costs of the Common Services Joint Venture Agreement were less than $3000, and these were shared by the seven original signatories to the venture.
Since its establishment at the beginning of April this year, the participating councils have exchanged more than 4700 hours of common services with a net benefit of $320,000. It is projected that 15,000 hours will be exchanged in this current financial year, providing savings in the order of $1 million. The net benefits are achieved by participating councils through the increased use of current council staff providing services, and from client councils employing common services within local government at a considerably lower cost, rather than from external consultants.
But the benefits go far beyond simply saving money. By sharing expertise, technology, equipment and facilities, the councils are providing improved services for their communities, attracting and retaining skilled employees and bringing a new level of efficiency to local government. Importantly, all of this is occurring without councils losing their individual identities and ratepayers still have ready access to their local councillors.
Of course, these sorts of positive initiatives don’t receive the same level of publicity as a petty squabble between aldermen or councillors, but they are stories that should be told.
I have asked the new president of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, Clarence Mayor Doug Chipman, to take up the cause and promote the positive things that councils are doing. I’ll also be encouraging other Mayors to join in doing the same.
The Minister for Local Government Peter Gutwein is asking councils to consider amalgamations in order to improve efficiency and service to ratepayers. I have no argument with his desire to enhance efficiency and service and frankly, that should apply to all levels of government and not just councils.
But local government is already doing a lot and I know that Brighton continues to be more efficient in everything we do and to improve services and facilities for our community. This is recognised by the State Auditor-General who has consistently rated Brighton as one the best performing council in Tasmania.
It is important that this information is promoted and understood in the current debate on local government reform.