Top-level taskforce to tackle outback council issues

The state government is establishing a new taskforce to address problems faced by the debt-ridden District Council of Coober Pedy, which has had administrator control extended for another four years.

Aug 17, 2022, updated Aug 17, 2022
Coober Pedy. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

Coober Pedy. Photo: Stephanie Richards/InDaily

Local Government Minister Geoff Brock, who is travelling to the far north town next week, said the decision to establish a “Coober Pedy Taskforce” headed by the Department of Premier and Cabinet followed a presentation to cabinet on Monday.

It comes as the suspended Council still faces debts of more than $10m to various creditors including the Local Government Financing Authority and energy company EDL.

Brock said the state government taskforce will comprise of the Department for Infrastructure and Transport (which runs the Office of Local Government), along with the departments for Environment and Water, Mining and Energy, Premier and Cabinet as well as SA Water and the Essential Services Commission of SA.

“This is the whole of government, our taskforce, to be able work with the community,” Brock told InDaily.

“I’ll be talking to the whole community about what I’ve done, where I intend to go which is going to be working with all of those people – including all of state government – to work our way through.”

The move comes after Brock announced his intention to keep Coober Pedy Council suspended for another four years until November 2026.

The District Council has been in administration since January 2019 when it was dissolved by former Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll.

That decision came after a July 2018 report from Ombudsman Wayne Lines found the Council had been responsible for “one of the most serious examples of maladministration” he had ever seen regarding its decision to enter into a $198m electricity deal with EDL without going to tender.

An Auditor General report later that year found multiple breaches of the Council’s obligations under the Local Government Act and warned that it carried an unsustainable level of debt.

Brock on Tuesday declared that the issues identified in the 2018 Ombudsman and Auditor General reports were still at play and the state government will legislate that the council remains in administration until November 2026.

The legislation will be introduced in the first sitting week of parliament next month, preventing the local government from returning to a body of elected members ahead of November’s council elections.

“They’re not ready to allow an elected member of council to be in there,” Brock said.

“If we don’t extend it then the people up there could nominate for the local government elections in November of this year.

“That’s not fair because the situation is not [to the point] where, in my view and the Department’s view, that they can go back as an elected body”

Brock said the Council still owed $7.8m to the Local Government Financing Authority, around $2m to the town’s electricity generator EDL and $3-4m to Treasury.

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Coober Pedy’s ageing water infrastructure – which is owned by the Council – suffers a rate of water leakage between 30 to 50 per cent, according to the Council’s administrator Tim Jackson.

The water bursts lead to residents of the outback town paying rates three times higher than what SA Water customers pay, according to Jackson.

“It’s a big challenge, I mean it’s gone on for four years now and there’s been a slight improvement in their financial side,” Brock said.

“But we need to get the community on side instead of being in different silos or corridors, we need to have them all working together.”

Asked whether the Council needed a bailout from the state government, Brock said: “I don’t know if that’s the way to go.”

“If that’s the way of the taskforce then that’s why the taskforce is there,” he said.

“I’ve got this taskforce, I can’t get any higher than the Department of Premier and Cabinet on it.

“We’ll work with the community, we’ll work with all the government agencies, we’ll work with the relevant industry leaders … we’ll work with the power companies, we’ll work with everybody.

“The community have to have a say in this, my first concern is the community.”

Jackson, a former Playford Council CEO who has run the District Council of Coober Pedy as administrator since January 2019, has already signalled his intention to step aside from the role if the Council’s suspension was extended.

He said he supports the state government’s move to extend the administration and believes it could return to an elected body before 2026.

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