Gateway vs roads and bridges - heated council debate

GREATER Taree City Council staff and councillors came together on Wednesday night for an extraordinary meeting of council to try to save $10 million in federal government funding that had been promised to the Northern Gateway Project.

As reported in Wednesday's Manning River Times, the project was delivered a major blow when council was notified by senior officers of NSW Department of Trade and Investment that "the maximum the State would fund is $1.7 million".

It was a heated council meeting with fervent debate between councillors over which avenue they should pursue to ensure that the promised funds stay in the local area.

During a visit to the area earlier in the year, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss together with federal member for Lyne, David Gillespie raised the idea of the Northern Gateway funds being transferred to the Greater Taree Roads and Bridges package, should the Northern Gateway Project not come to fruition.

Wednesday night's meeting was called to further discuss this option.

Going into the meeting, council staff had prepared a recommendation for councillors to consider that stated, 'That the Commonwealth be advised because a commitment of $7.5 million from the State Government is not forthcoming, the funding agreement for the Northern Gateway Regional Transport Access Infrastructure, cannot be signed by June 23'.

It also suggested requesting Mr Truss to reallocate the $10m to the roads and bridges infrastructure package and that subsequently the Manning Valley Business Chamber be asked to prepare a new business case in order to be able to apply for funding again in the future, for the Northern Gateway Project.

Councillors were divided throughout the meeting with Crs Epov, Keegan, Bell and Christensen favouring the idea of delaying the decision until they receive written confirmation of the exact dollar figure the State government was willing to contribute to the gateway, while the remaining councillors were pushing for the funds to be transferred to the roads and bridges package, in order to safeguard the money for the area.

It was repeatedly pointed out to councillors by senior council staff, that delaying a decision could prove detrimental, as the gateway application would need to be completely 're-scoped' to factor in the loss of State funding, and should the documents not be signed or a decision made by June 23, the $10 million could be lost altogether.

The meeting ran for two and a half hours and included several pauses for councillors to enter into open discussion, with a number of amendments raised and challenged before a final resolution was agreed unanimously by all councillors:

(i)That the general manager continue to vigorously pursue a formal decision from the Department of Trade and Investment regarding the outcome of the application for funding for the Northern Gateway.

(ii) That should the formal response not be provided by June 13 or the response is such an amount that it does not meet the appropriate timeframes for scoping, the general manager seek the formal agreement of the Federal Minister for Infrastructure to transfer the $10million previously allocated to the Northern Gateway Project to the Taree Roads and Bridges project which includes Dyers Crossing and Dickensen bridges, and parts of Manning Point and Gloucester roads.

(iii) That should the Northern Gateway Project not proceed, GTCC continue to engage with the Manning Valley Business Chamber in conjunction with the Economic Development Partnership Board and our Federal and State MPs to strengthen the business case for the Northern Gateway and work towards re-applying as soon as practicable for Federal and State government funding.

This means that council staff will be pushing for written confirmation of an exact dollar figure of the State's contribution to the project that was previously expected to be $7.5 million, however it was recently revealed that it would be significantly less and would be generated on a cost/benefit analysis, likely resulting in a maximum of $1.5 million from the State.

This leaves the project about $14 million short of its initial target (together with the loss in investor funds and a further $5 million from the federal government) and the application would need to be significantly altered.

The resolution allows some time to push the State to honour the figure that had been discussed all along, and subsequently, for the funds to be transferred, in order to stay in the area.

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