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Category: Local Government / Government and Politics / Community and Society / Business, Economics and Finance

NT Government faces rebelling councils in funding stand-off

08:15 UTC+8 April 7, 2017

Remote Indigenous residents could be left marooned without vital services as regional councils start to rebel against doing the work of the Federal and Northern Territory governments.

Bush councils are accusing both levels of government of short-changing them as they deliver multiple programs, including aged care, child care, night patrol and sports and recreation.

Barkly Shire president Barb Shaw warned the council would not provide services that were not financially sustainable.

"We've adopted a 'pushback' position, as part of our own survival," Ms Shaw said.

Tension does flare up occasionally as cost-shifting accusations are made, but other councils have told the ABC they are considering what programs they may have to give up.

Council leaders aired the issue at their Local Government Association of the NT (LGANT) annual meeting, where president Damien Ryan said untied grants from the Commonwealth were also falling.

"We seem to be on the end of cost-shifting in recent times, and we have to sing out about that," he said.

NT local government a hot potato

Local government in the NT has been a fraught political football.

General unhappiness at funding levels is set against broader community outrage at amalgamations of bush community councils into super shires in 2008.

It helped topple the then-NT Labor Government in 2012 as the bush revolted at a loss of local decision-making, jobs and services.

But while both sides of Territory politics have since made noises about restoring greater levels of local decision-making, the test de-merger of one super shire is struggling.

The two councils created by the split — Victoria Daly and West Daly regional councils — say they are badly in need of more core funding from the NT Government now they have smaller economies of scale.

Wages at Victoria Daly Regional Council have been frozen for staff including the chief executive and councillors for the past two years.

Mayor Brian Pedwell said the council had no choice: "[Otherwise] you'd just hand the keys back to the Government — what else can you do, your hands are tied?" he said.

But he said they could no longer afford to do that to the staff, and were now in the process of bringing in a staff wage increase while lobbying for more NT funding.

"We are down to our skin and bones — we can't lose any more staff," Mr Pedwell said.

"But now, just to deliver a service out in the communities, [the Government] need to sharpen their pen and assist us in delivering those services for the bush."

Councils fear reduced ability to make decisions

Housing and Community Development Department boss Jamie Chalker said his department was helping Victoria Daly to work through demerger issues.

He said they were focusing on governance areas, as well as identifying possible funding streams to support them temporarily, but stopped short of promising extra recurrent money.

"I can't make that call at this point in time because I want to have the evidence to duly consider that," Mr Chalker said.

He refuted suggestions the experience augured poorly for future demergers.

But he did reveal at the LGANT meeting the Government was developing a "shared services" approach for councils in the light of the Territory's economic situation.

"Synergies have to be identified between relevant councils, obviously access ... their tyranny of distance are all facts we need to consider," Mr Chalker said.

"However, if you have a significant asset such as a grader, does that really have to only operate within your own region or is there an ability for a cost-sharing arrangement to occur?"

Mr Chalker said such an approach might open up opportunities for future demergers, though at least one council leader warned the policy might lead to further erosion of local decision-making on resources.

 

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