Merriwa – Willow Tree Road: A “Disaster”

Filed in Just In by June 25, 2020

TONIGHT Upper Hunter Shire Council held an extraordinary meeting to pass a motion to give the General Manager and Mayor authority to spend up to $5 million repairing the Merriwa to Willow Tree Road, after Council failed to build the road to specification.

Cr James Burns amended the motion to include:

  • that Council have insurance and an audit process for projects worth more than $1million and
  • that Council have “project management guidelines.”

Cr Burns said that Council had made a mistake and he hopes it won’t happen again.

“I just think we’ve made a mistake, we know this, it started in this room we made the mistake, so this is about us fixing it, so we move on,” said Cr Burns. 

“Yes, it’s going to be expensive, yes, it’s going to take time but this is the way that we can fix the mistake in the future and hopefully it doesn’t happen again,” said Cr Burns.

However, Councillors Lee Watts and Sue Abbott had many questions regarding the mismanagement and did not feel assured Council had the processes in place to ensure another costly error did not occur.

Cr Lee Watts said while she had read the geotechnical report and independent review she had “huge concerns about how long it took before anyone noticed that this project was a disaster.”

“I acknowledge that sections of the Merriwa to willow tree need to be reconstructed, to meet B-double standards but alone, will impact this community for 20 years is surely not the only way forward,” said Cr Watts.

“This was a joint project which was to facilitate local, economic development; What has been the response by the Liverpool plains shire council regarding our mismanagement?

“And now that we have made our side of the road unusable, for the intended purpose that has a significant impact on their ratepayers also, if they can’t use the road, how does council plan to remedy that situation for our neighbours?

“There are so many questions;

  • What’s the total cost to ratepayers for this mismanagement, including the $5million loan that is being applied for?
  • The interest on that loan, plus any shortfall in the grant funding, and the cost to road users not being able to use the road at all?
  • Has there been an economic assessment for the full cost that this mismanage of this project will have on the ratepayer’s and what will the final figure be?
  • Who did council consult with about transport for NSW coming on board?
  • Is it now predicted that a rate rise will be necessary to cover the cost of this mismanagement?”

Cr Watts made the point that Councillors are liable, yet said she was not briefed before Council issued a media release confirming the road was not built to specification.

“There are way too many questions and not enough answers for me to be able to support this recommendation,” said Cr Watts.

“Without procedures of what council will put in place to undertake the reconstruction on sections of the Merriwa to Willow Tree Road, is tabled to ensure that this will never happen again.

“I do not have confidence that as a Councilor, I have been informed of council plans for this project and I cannot and will not support a $5 million loan will impact our community for 20 years.

“I’m not comfortable how Council executed this project or how the rate payer’s money is being spent,” she said.

“This is mismanagement at the bottom line, and it is those responsible who we need to hold accountable for it,” said Cr Lee Watts.

Mayor Maurice Collison said that he agreed with many of Cr Watts comments, but felt it was important to move on, “it’s embarrassing, I’m sure that us, as a Council, are all to take on the chin, I respect your comments, and well move on.”

Cr Abbott shared Cr Watts’ concerns, said she had no confidence as a Councillor that she had been properly informed of Council’s activities and questioned if an administrator was now needed.

“I fully support everything Cr Watts just said, everything, and I would like to know why the GM did not brief me in relation to the road not being built to specification’s before sending out the media release on Tuesday,” said Cr Abbott.

“I’d also like to know, did we take out insurance and not get it because we hadn’t built the road to specifications and did we not get the natural disaster grant because we had not built the road to specifications?

“What will the total cost of the road be to the ratepayer as a result of this debacle?

“Its enormous these are things that before we embark upon, as the ratepayers across the shire wants to know.

“Also has the government acquitted the road and has council received the full grant funding allocated?

“I too, like Cr watts, I have no confidence that as a Councilor I have been informed of Council’s activities.

“I have many questions about this road I’m only containing myself to about half a dozen tonight,” she said.

“And I will finish that I understand that the community does not feel, and I have heard this, they do not feel that we Council, are fit for purpose and that there is talk that an administrator should be sent in,” said Cr Sue Abbott.

Mayor Collison asked if the general manager, Steven McDonald, wanted to answer any of the questions, but no answers were provided.

Mayor Maurice Collison, then said there was a briefing during the week which took “probably an hour and a half of my time” where the road was discussed at length and said he would not be “going to get into any more debate…there will be no more questions, comment or discussions on this matter.”

The motion was then passed, with Crs Collison, Burns, Campbell and Fisher voting for and Crs Watts and Abbott voting against.

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