Many could be forgiven for thinking that voting in the election of the 'third tier of government' was simply a matter of duty to avoid a $55 fine while others are firm believers in the three Rs: roads, rates and rubbish.
The reality is, whether you care about the potholes getting filled, the type of property development occurring in your local area or broader issues like climate change - your local council is is the closest level of government and the most likely to deliver at a grassroots level.
By the time the average adult brushes their teeth and drives to work or to the shops in the morning, they've likely utilised dozens of services provided by their local council.
According to Local Government NSW [LGNSW], an independent organisation that exists to serve the interests of local councils across the State, there are 128 councils in NSW which own and control assets worth around $200 billion.
They spend more than $12 billion each year on providing key infrastructure, facilities and services to local communities.
And according to the NSW Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, the 'old adage that councils are about roads, rates and rubbish is long gone'.
"Today, our modern-day councils are big business - and the numbers are staggering," Ms Hancock said.
"NSW has 128 councils - collectively they employ 48,000 people.
"Many rural and regional councils are the biggest employer in town and the lifeblood of the local economy.
"And they spend more than $12 billion each year on infrastructure, facilities and services for local communities - more than double the $5.3 billion cost of building Sydney's second airport at Badgerys Creek," Ms Hancock said.
In The Upper Hunter local government area of Singleton, the council's general manager, Jason Linnane, described local government as 'the most diverse industry on Earth'.
In the local government area of Port Stephens, north of Newcastle, concerns over high-rise development and the future of Nelson Bay provided the impetus for the creation of the Tomaree Ratepayers & Residents Association.
The group, formed in 2008 to provide a voice for residents on issues affecting the Tomaree Peninsula and to serve as 'a conduit for communication between the Port Stephens Council, its elected representatives and the community', according to its president Ben van der Wijngaart.
"The role of local government is to provide those services to ratepayers and residents that are best managed and delivered at the local level, consistent with State Government policy," Mr van der Wijngaart said.
"This level of government is also arguably the most important as it has to regularly deal face-to-face with the people for which it exists."
It comes back to the three Rs. Roads. Rates. Rubbish.
Yes councils do it, but what else and do residents know about it?
According to Mr Linnane there is a general lack of understanding about what each tier of government does, which can in part be attribute to the shifting of responsibilities and costs between governments.
"I think a lot of people don't understand what the different levels of government do and don't do," he said.
"This is something we see all the time. We get a lot of comments around the use of grant funding based on a lack of understanding that these monies are often tied to particular uses or projects that we are accountable to funding source to deliver, and which therefore can't be moved around to other priorities.
"The other big misconception people have is around the levying of rates.
"I hear comments from people all the time accusing councils of just being able to raise rates on a whim when costs blow out or some other circumstances arise. That is simply untrue. Rates are very closely governed by IPART (the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal) via the rate pegging process, and councils must navigate a rigorous application process to impose an amount above the approved rate peg cap in any given year."
According to Mr Linnane, the role of local government is far reaching and possibly the most meaningful level of administration.
"The ultimate role of local government and the purpose of everything we do is to create community," Mr Linnane said.
"Local government has a massive impact on people's day-to-day lives - this is the grass roots level of government that directly fulfils the needs of our community, delivering roads, rubbish collection and disposal, water and sewer services, recreation facilities, childcare, libraries, arts and cultural programs, cemeteries, community development, economic development, assessment of development applications, land use planning, health and building services and ranger services."
From the minster's perspective, local councils provide the first point of contact and a much more immediate relationship for residents and ratepayers.
"Councils are the level of government closest to the community, playing a key role in making them better places to live, work and play," Ms Hancock said.
"They deliver the essential infrastructure, facilities and services that local communities need and deserve.
"They also make critical decisions informed by the views and aspirations of the local community about the type of place local residents wants to live in, often make these decisions in collaboration with the NSW Government and play a key role in advocating for funding support from the State and Commonwealth governments to address the needs and outcomes of their community."
Ask anyone to sum up the role of their council and they'll likely mention those three Rs: roads, rates and rubbish. Some may even mention libraries and day care but what else is handled?
"Singleton Council delivers about 68 different services from cradle to grave and everything in between," Mr Linnane said.
"This is the grass roots level of government that has a direct impact on the needs of our community, delivering and maintaining vital infrastructure and services such as roads, bridges and drainage; rubbish collection, recycling and disposal; water supply and sewer treatment; recreation facilities including parks, playgrounds, gyms, swimming pools, sports grounds and specialist sports facilities; childcare and before and after school programs; libraries; youth services; arts and cultural programs and centres; community events and cemeteries.
"These services are the foundations of the development of communities everywhere, are fundamental to our wellbeing and modern way of life, and yet are most often taken for granted.
"Try to imagine anywhere in the developed world where rubbish isn't collected, there are no playgrounds for our kids, there are no footy goalposts or cricket pitches or netball courts, no one is making sure the food in our local cafes is safe to eat and anyone can build what they want, where they want. How different would your life be?"
If it wasn't apparent already, having an immediate point of contact with an administration that impacts the daily lives of thousands of people in each community is vital and a basic right in any democracy.
"Councils are unique, exercising their functions under the strategic direction and oversight of a governing body made up of locals passionate about their community and elected by their community," Ms Hancock said.
"That's why they are best placed to identify and deliver community goals and aspirations for the local community.
"Councils are required to work with their communities to identify their goals and aspirations through 10-year strategic plans and implement and deliver them through four-year programs."
For the Singleton GM councils are the 'glue that brings people together based on a shared sense of belonging and wellbeing through a framework of essential and critical services and infrastructure'.
"That role is heightened in emergency situations when people are looking for leadership and guidance to keep our communities safe and secure," Mr Linnane said.
"In the past few years, our communities have endured bushfires, floods and of course the COVID-19 pandemic, and in each scenario I've been proud of the way Council crews have stepped up to respond quickly and efficiently, often with no regard for their own circumstances, because of their dedication to our local community.
"Strategic planning at this local level also encourages everyone to come together to have input into the vision and direction of our towns and villages.
"Local government also gives our community a voice to other tiers of government and a platform to raise those issues that require investment and decision-making from higher levels to achieve the best outcomes for our residents now and into the future.
Planning for the long-term future of local government areas is one of the many strengths of councils, according to Mr Linnane and 'where we see visions become actions'.
"As the level of government closest to the community, our residents, businesses, investors and visitors are actively encouraged to have input and ownership into setting the direction for our towns and villages which directly influence the operations of Council."
"The most obvious long-term plan is the community strategic plan, which develops a 10-year vision for each local government area based on input from the entire community. Singleton is currently going through this process and has had input and comments from more than 1,000 residents across a range of platforms highlighting their priorities for the next decade.
"The draft document will be publicly exhibited as a resolution of the new elected Council next year.
"Conversely, cost shifting is a significant issue faced by local government because it undermines the financial sustainability of our sector by forcing councils to assume responsibility for more infrastructure and services without sufficient corresponding resourcing. Recent examples include local government elections, waste management and the Emergency Services Compensation Scheme."
The NSW government sacked the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council in 2008 over its construction and budget blowout of a cultural and entertainment centre known as the Glasshouse.
So what makes for a well functioning council?
"Councils are elected community representatives. Their role is to advocate for residents in the community and represent them when decisions are made," Ms Hancock said.
"This means regular consultation with the community, important decision making at public council meetings, engaging with State and Federal Governments to get the best outcomes for their communities.
"Councillors are civic leaders. They have a Code of Conduct to adhere to, and their communities hold the power to keep them in their position on council or replace them at the regular local government election periods."
Singleton's GM attributed a successful council to cohesion and teamwork among other factors.
"Like any organisation, the success of a local Council depends on everyone involved," Mr Linnane said.
"Good governance, positive leadership, disciplined planning, clear direction, consistent communication, a focus on systems, processes and relationships, and of course lots of hard work are characteristics of our operations at Singleton."
In the view of the Tomaree Ratepayers & Residents Association transparency and accountability is key.
"It is imperative that local government is above all transparent, accessible and accountable to the people of the LGA," Mr van der Wijngaart said.
"It must therefore be a good and credible communicator devoid of spin and self-promotion.
"Elected councillors need to exercise good management skills and cooperation regardless of their political leanings or affiliations and councils need to listen and consult effectively and not simply go through the motions.
"They need to realise that there is collective wisdom in their communities that they need to draw on and regard seriously and that the best and wisest opinions are not necessarily going to come from developers with pockets full of money and mouthing bland promises of prosperity.
"A good council takes the long-term view and can only function effectively if it forms community-informed and supported strategies and policies and sticks to those policies."
The diverse and far-reaching responsibilities within local government present challenged themselves. Balancing the books and keeping council in the black is a hot-button issue just about wherever you go.
An independent inquiry into the Financial Sustainability of NSW Local Government concluded in 2006 that local government needed to find an extra $900 million a year back then to overcome an infrastructure backlog that councils could not afford to meet.
And according to Mr Linnane, issues like climate change and the pandemic have presented a new set of obstacles.
"As ambassadors for our community and the level of government closest to serving the basic needs of our residents, being able to meet the expectations and deliver everything our communities deserve with limited resources, and while maintaining a balanced budget, will always be the biggest challenge for councils," he said.
"On a broader level, financial sustainability, cost shifting, cyber crime, climate change, political instability, natural disasters, and the pandemic also pose significant risks and impacts to our operations, viability and ability to deliver services and infrastructure at a standard our community expects and deserves."
The Tomaree Ratepayers & Residents Association tended to agree.
Dealing with the local effects of climate change as in storms, sea-level rise, urban heating, infrastructure damage, etc; balancing development pressure with services and infrastructure limitation while maintaining the lived and natural environment and funding sources, Mr van der Wijngaart said.
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