In spite of concerns last year of a fee structure based on the size of a council's ratepayer base, Armidale Regional Council has agreed to pay a more than 500 percent increase in membership fees to remain with the New England Joint Organisation (NEJO) of councils.
The original NEJO membership fee on start-up in 2018 was a flat fee of $5,000 per council. This year Armidale Regional Council has paid $28,320 for the privilege.
Late last year two membership fee structure options were put to the board of NEJO in a report prepared by executive officer Brooke Southwell for review at its November 2019 meeting.
In the report, Ms Southwell stated that the joint organisation had fixed costs of $115,000 per year that could not be funded through grants and could not be maintained under the existing membership structure. She also outlined the fees charged by other joint organisations which ranged from under $10,00 to over $50,000.
For the 2020/21 budget member councils were asked to adopt either a flat fee of $17,000 each, or a population-based fee structure similar to the one used by the Orana Joint Organisation of Councils.
At the time, Armidale Regional Council indicated it would prefer the flat fee structure of $17,000 as did Glen Innes and Inverell councils.
"Last year a decision had to be made in relation to fees per member council to keep the NEJO financially viable," Inverell Mayor Paul Harmon said.
"We had a bit of an argument around the fact that if you had more people in your local government area you had more voting rights but eventually agreed that we wanted to maintain a one vote per member structure.
"We then decided to proceed with the pro-rata structure at a meeting well before the Armidale Regional Council was dissolved, and then there was another resolution at last months NEJO meeting in Inverell to reaffirm the budget."
Armidale Regional Council administrator Viv May attended that September NEJO board meeting, but was unavailable for comment when the Armidale Express contacted council this week.
The membership fees agreed to at a teleconference meeting in April (which was attended by Ms Susan Law for ARC) were that the NEJO 2020/2021 membership contribution be made up of a flat fee of $8,500 plus a 50 per cent per capita fee based on 2016 Census population data.
This resulted in the following membership fees per council:Armidale - $28,320 ( based on a population of 31,500); Inverell - $19,490 ( based on a population 17,300); ; Moree - $17,280 (based on a population of 13,750); Narrabri $17,070 (based on a population of 13,400); Glen Innes - $14,200 ( based on a population of 8,800); Tenterfield $13,180 ( based on a population of 7,150); and Uralla -$12,680 (based on a population of 6,350).
Gwydir Shire Council joined the group as an associate member for a fee of $8,500 which means they can participate in meetings but have no voting rights.
"I know Moree raised questions, and so did Tenterfield, and there was discussion around the fact that although we need to pay the fees we also need to see the NEJO give value for money," Mr Harmon said.
"So it was agreed that we proceed with the pro-rata format with the current fees until after the local elections next September, and then the new council representatives to the NEJO can make determinations."
Uralla Mayor Michael Pearce chairs NEJO and he says it is early days for the group.
"There are 12 joint organisations across New South Wales with some of the test case JOs having operated for 13 years now, so we're one of the babies in the group and one of the smaller JO's," he said.
"We're still setting our foundations up and getting things in a line.
"We've received $150,000 funding from the government and that is going into developing a New England road network strategy and a tourism campaign.
"A joint organisation is not a third tier of government, it is a group of councils who can get together as one voice and look at initiatives that cover the region."
The next NEJO board meeting is set for November 30 and will be hosted by Moree Council.