Report provides objective council data

JORDAN WILLIAMS
Last updated 07:16 24/06/2014

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Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery's piece (Superficial ratings play fast and loose with data, June 20) is the kind of informative debate the Ratepayers' Report was designed to elicit.

Ratepayers' Report is an online tool to compare councils' performance and affordability published by Fairfax Media earlier in the month. The Taxpayers' Union kicked the project off and collated most of the data.

Some councils are costing their residents much more than others. We wanted to work out if higher cost was reflected in better services valued by residents. Was higher cost inevitable, forced by circumstances like growth, or does it just show bad choices and poor management?

It was harder than expected. Local government-published figures don't allow easy comparison of apples with apples. We had to work with the data available.

Astonishingly, councils do not routinely benchmark their performance against each other. Businesses do it all the time - otherwise they die. Yet we faced blunt hostility from a number of councils to the idea of public league tables. Only a few were helpful.

Ratepayers' Report allows us to test common excuses for poor performance. It suggests that neither rapid growth nor "demographics" (the proportions of young to old, or low density and extensive roading) are excuses for poor performance. Good councils can cut their cloth to suit their resources. Poor performers can improve, and vice versa.

We welcome Lavery's clarification for the ratepayers in Wellington. I'm personally delighted to think that Wellington's performance may be better than indicated by the comparison, because I live here and I like much of what the council does.

But Wellington City was the last of all the councils to respond to our various information requests and hardest to get information from. Fairfax Media showed the utmost caution in resending the data provided by the Taxpayers' Union to every council, asking them to correct errors.

We wanted just the kind of explanation that Lavery has now so helpfully provided. I hope it was not one of the excess staff about whom Lavery is so defensive that has let him down here.

We wish Local Government New Zealand's response was as informative as Lavery's. We sought LGNZ's help at the beginning of the year to ensure the Ratepayers' Report provided relevant, meaningful and accurate data. Instead of seeing the Taxpayers' Union collaboration with Fairfax Media and Stuff.co.nz as an opportunity to give ratepayers transparent and objective data to judge their council's performance, LGNZ could hardly have done more to undermine the project.

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Next year we will seek Lavery's early input to improve the value of the comparison for those who pay rates in Wellington City, in comparison to those in the Hutt Valley.

This year's Ratepayers' Report is clearly the first. It will improve. But it has provided far more information than has ever been readily accessible before, and much more than would be available had we accepted LGNZ's lofty "leave it to the experts" rebuff.

Jordan Williams is the executive director of the Taxpayers' Union. Ratepayers' Report, published by Fairfax Media is available at www.ratepayersreport.co.nz

- The Dominion Post

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