THE township of Merriwa has banded together to help some of their own, who are faced with an unexpected $60,000 bill from Council.
The town was initially excited to hear they’d been given a bushfire recovery grant of $924,735, for a cycleway project to link key parts of their town, including the showground, some schools, the silos, sports parks, and the aged care hostel through to the centre of town.
But the excitement soon turned to concern, when they learned approximately 25 residents who lived on the route, would have to foot part of the cycleway bill themselves; several of whom are aged care pensioners and worried about how they’d be able to afford it.
So the town didn’t leave these residents hanging. They argued to Council that because it was a grant project, the Council should cover the cost. A proposal not accepted by Council. Then they proposed the Merriwa Reserve Fund should be used. This was also rejected by Council.
So now they have started a GoFundMe campaign, to support the residents, and are encouraging people with a connection to Merriwa and throughout the Shire to help by contributing what they can.
Robert Smith, a Merriwa resident, said the campaign started on Friday and is the focus of the newly formed Merriwa Chamber of Commerce.
“We hope to rise the whole amount by September or October this year,” he said.
“We know there are a lot of people out there who empathise with the Merriwa residents and would like to help,” he said.
“The new Tourist Welcoming Centre, and the canteen from the Stockhorse Society weekend, have made some very generous donations and we are already up to $10,000,” he said.
“Council has it wrong with the tone of this project, it’s meant to be for community building, and their approach has reversed good will and introduced ill feeling. Many pensioners haven’t budgeted for this, and they’ve been told they can pay their bill to Council, when they sell their house. It upsets them to have that hanging over them,” Mr Smith said.
Th GoFundMe campaign will not be paid directly to Council, instead it will be given to the affected residents to pay their bill form Council.
The cycleway itself is well supported in the town, and increasingly important, explained Mr Smith.
“We are on the edge of a renewable energy zone, and have the east-west transport route, with more heavy vehicles coming through town, so anyone wanting to go walk need to walk on the highway, it is becoming more of a concern,” he said.
“As a health practitioner I see people who have been told to get healthier and exercise, but there haven’t been those easy options for exercise like safe walking routes.
“This is a good step forward for doing that. We put funding into obesity and healthy living programs, when this is really good, simple solution.
“There should be more from Federal and State governments for active transport options in rural communities, not just Merriwa,” he said.
“Rural people statistically have worse health outcomes than their city counterparts and this is a very simple and effective way of giving the opportunity for exercise,” Robert Smith said.
The Merriwa Fund was created when properties owned by the former Merriwa Council were sold. The fund was to be set aside for projects in Merriwa, and residents felt this was an ideal time to use it.
Steve Gowlland, president of the Merriwa Progress Association spoke at the December Council meeting to encourage use of the Fund, but some Councillors believed funding the cycleway could set a precedence in other towns for footpath co-contributions.
Mr Gowlland argued, “the Road Act is quite clear in that the contribution of the landholders is to recoup the cost of the road authority. So, in the case of the Merriwa cycleway the road authority (in this case Council) didn’t actually contribute to that, it was all from a grant.”
“So therefore, I don’t believe that Council can levy those landholders at all, but our group wants to see the project go ahead and we’ve come up with an alternative way of getting that extra co-contribution of that $60,000,” he said.
“A cycleway is a little different to a footpath to a set of homes…so if Council pays to put in a footpath, then yeah, I think it would be appropriate for the residents who do adjoin to contribute to and offset Council’s costs for that footpath,” Robert Gowlland said.
During the Council discussion, Cr Watts said she believed there was no precedence being set and the Merriwa Reserve Fund should be used.
I foreshadowed a motion for the Fund to be used, instead of charging landholders.
However, Council voted the residents should have to pay.
Councillors who voted for residents to foot the bill included: Maurice Collison, James Burns, Allison McPhee, Adam Williamson, and Ron Campbell.
Mr Smith said, “we were disappointed when Ron voted against it, when it came up. We felt he didn’t take our considerations on.”
I agree Council should have covered this cost, considering the grant funding it received for the project, much less at least use the Merriwa Reserve Fund, but we still have another way to support the affected residents and show that as a broader community we are there to support each other: GoFundMe.
Cr Elizabeth Flaherty
All of the above are my perspectives, opinions and beliefs as a Councillor on the Upper Hunter Shire Council, are my own, which may not (in fact probably don’t) reflect Council’s position, but which as an elected representative I am supported in law to freely express.