Inquiry calls for council grants overhaul

It was time to clean up council grant funding to make it predictable, transparent, fair, and ethical, Local Government NSW (LGNSW) said publicly yesterday.

The peak body was responding to a NSW Parliamentary inquiry that found the State Government operated a “brazen pork barrel scheme” and played party politics with $252 million of taxpayers’ money.

LGNSW President, Linda Scott said the Public Accountability Committee, chaired by David Shoebridge MLC, clearly outlined the blatant political misuse of the Stronger Communities Fund grant program in a report that found the program “was never meant to benefit the public”.

Stronger Communities grant funding was supposed to help amalgamated councils ameliorate the cost of forced amalgamations, but was instead primarily delivered to councils in Coalition or marginal electorates ahead of the 2019 State election.

The Public Accountability Committee said the current grants system was “broken and in need to a fundamental overhaul”.

Cr Scott welcomed the recommendation that the current model of grant funding be replaced with a clear and transparent funding formula, which was predictable and provided multi-year funding agreements.

“This would give councils certainty and allow them to plan ahead to ensure the effective and efficient use of taxpayer funds,” she said.

“The Government needs to work with LGNSW to change the way State funding is determined to ensure public funds deliver public good, in a way that is transparent, fair and equitable for all councils in NSW.

“It is totally unacceptable that councils and their communities miss out on funding for political reasons.”

Cr Scott said the Public Accountability Committee had recommended the new council funding model require a link to each council’s existing strategic planning documents and priorities, to remove any potential political bias and ensure genuine community value.

“The committee also recommends consideration be given to the additional costs borne by regional and remote councils; an issue which places additional pressure on councils with lower ratings bases than metropolitan councils,” she said.

“This recommendation has our full support, as does the committee’s call to ensure funding criteria is regularly and publicly reviewed to ensure it is actually meeting the needs of the sector and not turning into a vote-buying exercise that advantages some and disadvantages others.”

Yesterday’s report is the result on an inquiry that kicked off in July last year, following allegations the Stronger Communities Fund was nothing more than pork barrelling in the lead up to the 2019 election.

“Councils absolutely rely on State and Federal support for the vast and ever-growing range of infrastructure and services they provide their communities. They rely on grants like the Stronger Communities Fund to help underwrite vital local projects,” Cr Scott said.

“I welcome this report’s recommendation for Government to work with LGNSW to come up with a better way for determining grants and look forward to a closer working relationship in the future to achieve equitable outcomes for all our communities.”