Port Stephens and Dungog Council voluntary council merger a good idea says Bruce MacKenzie

EYES ON DUNGOG: Port Stephens Mayor Bruce MacKenzie said the people of Dungog are reaching out to merge with his council as Dungog Shire struggles to find funding.
EYES ON DUNGOG: Port Stephens Mayor Bruce MacKenzie said the people of Dungog are reaching out to merge with his council as Dungog Shire struggles to find funding.

The Mayor of Port Stephens has issued a warning to Dungog Shire Council – merge with us or you’ll “wither and die”. 

Port Stephens’ Mayor Bruce MacKenzie told Fairfax Media his council issued an invitation to merge the councils on Tuesday night after the people of Dungog shire reached out.

“We held public meetings [in Dungog shire] and they said they wanted to come with Port Stephens,” Cr MacKenzie said.

“I just couldn’t live with myself if I deserted them.”

The community consultations took place while the NSW Government was planning to force amalgamations for regional councils. Dungog and Maitland opposed their proposed merger for a year until the State Government reversed its position in February.

But Cr MacKenzie said Port Stephens Council issued the invitation for a voluntary merger because Dungog Shire Council still did not have the ability to stand alone.

“Dungog could be better, I don’t mind the main street but Dungog Shire Council doesn’t have a lot of money to spend,” he said.

“Let’s face it, they’re cash strapped.

“They don’t get much from rates.”

In the wake of the merger proposals in 2015, Fairfax Media reported Dungog Shire Council was facing a $42 million infrastructure backlog. The condition of the shire’s roads are so criticised the council website has a page entitled “Why are our roads so bad?”.

When mergers were proposed, Maitland City Council debated whether Dungog’s financial position would become a burden for ratepayers if the two merged.

But Cr MacKenzie said he thinks a merger with Post Stephens would be mutually beneficial, particularly given the tourism focus of the two areas.

“Dungog is like minded,” he said.

“They have that rural atmosphere and they have the tourism from the town and the Barringtons.”

But not everyone is in favour, State Member for Port Stephens Kate Washington said Cr Mackenzie had disingenuously used the community survey results for his own gain and the priority of Port Stephens was always to stand alone.

“The Mayor continues to put his personal agenda ahead of the community’s wishes,” she said.

“I question in whose interest Port Stephens Council is acting by requesting a merger with Dungog.”

Echoing Maitland City Council’s opposition to the forced merger, Ms Washington warned of Dungog’s crumbling roads and bridges as financial liabilities. 

“Why should Port Stephens ratepayers have to bear the burden of Dungog shire’s backlog of roads and infrastructure maintenance?” Ms Washington said.

“This is a desperate bid by Mayor Mackenzie to save his fiefdom from extinction.”

Anticipating Dungog Council would also oppose his council’s proposed merger, Cr MacKenzie warned there would be voter backlash. 

“If Dungog Council wants to stand alone they’ll wither and die,” he said.

“To be so stubborn is unrealistic and [Dungog] residents will suffer.

“If they choose to stand alone 75 per cent of the councilors won’t be there after the September election – and that includes the mayor.”

Cr MacKenzie said he was responding to the will of the people in Dungog and had no intention of consulting with Dungog’s mayor, Harold Johnston.

“I don’t want to talk to Harold,” he said.

“I’ve spoken to him twice in my life.

“I’m a man of the people.”

Cr MacKenzie said there would be massive benefits for the people of Dungog and Port Stephens to merge.

“If the merge happened the rate payers there would be the happiest they’ve been in a decade,” he said.

“They’ll see some action, they’ll have the ability to talk to their councilors, their mayor, there’ll be urgent road upgrades.

Fairfax Media sought comment from numerous Dungog councilors including the mayor and general manager and the Dungog District Chamber of Commerce. 

This story Macca to Dungog – ‘I don’t want to talk to Harold’ first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.