There are fears Sutherland Shire Council's decision to begin charging rent for its Child & Family Health clinics could lead to closures of some services.
The council began charging $46,000 rent from July 1 for those Child & Family Health clinics it owns, reversing a long-standing agreement between the council and health authorities. Cleaning and maintenance services were also withdrawn from July 1.
It ends an agreement, dating back about 70 years, which saw the council provide the premises free of charge. In exchange, health authorities provided staff to operate the clinics.
But Sutherland Shire Council has defended the move, with a spokesman saying it was "not sustainable" for ratepayers to continue to bear the cost.
Child & Family Health clinics are run by NSW Health through their health districts and provide an invaluable service to families as the first point of contact for new parents after the birth of a baby.
Child & Family Health nurses attached to the clinics provide comprehensive check-ups for newborns through to children up to the age of five. They also provide support to parents and are often the first to pick up signs of postnatal depression or family abuse.
New parents groups also operate from the centres, although these have been held virtually since March due to coronavirus restrictions.
There are currently six clinics operated by South Eastern Sydney Local Health District in Sutherland Shire - at Caringbah, Cronulla, Engadine, Menai, Miranda and Sutherland.
NSW Health owns two of those premises - Engadine and Menai - while the council owns the rest.
Now there are fears some clinics will be forced to amalgamate or close after Sutherland Shire Council's decision.
It is the first council in the area to begin charging rent for Child & Family Health clinics, with both Georges River and Bayside councils continuing to honour the arrangements.
The added cost of rent could not come at a worse time for NSW Health, with health costs skyrocketing this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A Sutherland Shire Council spokesman said the council had engaged with South Eastern Sydney Local Health District (SESLHD) over the past three years to negotiate a "staged transition towards the fair and equitable payment of rent on three council-owned or managed properties" occupied by the clinics.
"These state-government funded public health services have benefited from rent-free accommodation at Miranda, Cronulla and Caringbah - in most cases for several decades - with the local community, via payment of rates and charges, having borne the upkeep and renewal costs during this time," the spokesman said, adding the council "extended a two-year grace period under which rents would be waived for NSW Health".
"Council has been negotiating a fair way forward for equitable payment of rent on the three premises by NSW Health, recognising both the value that these services bring to the community, but also the impact of $46,000 in foregone rent per annum," he said.
"This process has included a staged transferral of costs to NSW Health this year, including costs of building maintenance, cleaning, lawn mowing and the provision of utilities.
"NSW Health has been advised that commencing July 1, it will need to make provision to reimburse the community, via council, for the rents due as well as make arrangements for cleaning and maintenance.
"While council recognises there is significant community benefit provided by these services, it is not sustainable - particularly under current economic conditions - for local ratepayers to continue to bear all costs associated with the operation of NSW Health services that should appropriately be funded by the state government."
A SESLHD spokeswoman said it had been "in discussion with Sutherland Shire Council as to future arrangements regarding the use of council-owned buildings for Child & Family Health Services".
"Currently, Child & Family Health Centres within SESLHD continue to be staffed and operated at normal capacity and within normal hours of operation," she said.
"SESLHD remains committed to providing early parenting and childhood services for all local families within the district."