John Bell steps down as Upper Lachlan Shire Council GM

Retiring Upper Lachlan Council general manager John Bell has listed negotiation of wind farm community enhancement funds as one of the highlights of his career.

Mr Bell will step down from the top job on September 27 after almost 44 years in local government. He started his career with the former Mulwaree Shire Council in 1976 on the front counter before assuming the accountancy role.

NEW CHAPTER: Upper Lachlan Shire Council general manager John Bell says he'll remember his 44 years in local government with fondness. Photo supplied.

NEW CHAPTER: Upper Lachlan Shire Council general manager John Bell says he'll remember his 44 years in local government with fondness. Photo supplied.

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By 1997 he was heading up Gunning Shire and then successfully applied for the GM's position at Upper Lachlan after the 2004 council amalgamations.

The Breadalbane district resident said it was time to call it a day. He informed councillors in May that he wouldn't seek to renew his contract, which expired in February, 2020.

Mr Bell went on long service leave in May and only returned in recent weeks. He said it was his choice to go and he wanted to give ample time before Christmas to allow the council to find a replacement.

He has described it as an honour to serve the Shire for more than 40 years. Mr Bell listed water supply upgrades in Gunning/Dalton, Taralga and Crookwell; construction of the Taralga Sewerage Scheme Connection, sporting infrastructure and the Crookwell Digital Television Retransmission Tower as significant achievements.

But the arrival of wind farms posed new challenges. Balancing divided opinions was just one aspect.

"I was the council's point person in negotiating the voluntary community enhancement agreements," Mr Bell said.

"They were state significant developments and we didn't get much of a say in them, but from my point of view it was about ensuring our infrastructure didn't suffer and that the community saw some benefit over the wind farms' life. Those agreements are now in place for all the wind farms."

Likewise, Upper Lachlan Shire was the first council to develop a development control plan for wind farms. It is now used as a template for many other councils.

Gullen Range wind farm is just one of the projects with a community enhancement fund in place. Photo supplied.

Gullen Range wind farm is just one of the projects with a community enhancement fund in place. Photo supplied.

Maintaining the vast road network in the 7500 square kilometre council area with its 8000 residents spread across rural towns and villages has also had its challenges.

"When I first started, there was one sealed road into Crookwell," Mr Bell said.

But now there were "any number of sealed roads, including those to Gunning, Bathurst, Taralga and the Range Road. Others such as Wombeyan Caves Road and the one to Wyangala were underway.

The GM said rural roads continued to be a major issue but more money had flowed in recent time.

"In 2004 when we had the amalgamation of Gunning, Crookwell and part of Mulwaree Shire to form Upper Lachlan, there was no grant funding to assist councils," Mr Bell said.

"But in the more recent amalgamations there were millions of dollars floating around. We didn't get a cent in 2004 so we were forced to chase grants as hard as we could and we've been successful in lobbying our state and federal politicians...There's a limited bucket of money but in an ideal world there would be more to go around."

The GM stands firm in his view that the 2004 council amalgamations did not result in the savings that then Local Government Minister, Tony Kelly predicted.

Now bridge repair and replacement is proving to be another financial challenge. Upper Lachlan is looking to increase its borrowing limit by $1.4 million. Grant funding will be needed for five more timber bridges. Bypasses at seven structures will be constructed at a cost of $856,000.

Upper Lachlan avoided a merger in the latest round of council amalgamations. Mr Bell says the council is in a sound financial position. But he admits that in the "early days" it took a hit on its finances.

He's forecasting a bright future for the Shire.

"The outlook is totally positive," he said.

"It's location, location, location. We're ideally placed between Canberra, Sydney, the South Coast and Central West. Now that roads have been opened up we have tourism potential for as far as the eye can see and we have business shopping around to base themselves here.

"I say to councillors that it's incumbent on them to leave the council in a better position financially, socially and environmentally than when they started. I can put my hand on my heart and say that's been the case for me."

He said he would most remember the "wonderful people" he'd met along the way, including staff, past and present councillors and "dedicated community members" who had helped make the Shire a wonderful place.

"I'll miss the camaraderie," Mr Bell said.

He plans to travel more with his Irish-born wife, Rose, utilising their Dublin base, as well as spending time at his Breadlabane property.

The council is advertising for a new general manager. Finance and administration director, Andrew Croke, will act in the role until a replacement is appointed.