Law changes pose threat to council services
Changes to the Local Government Act rushed through Parliament last week have the potential to pit ratepayer groups against one other.
The Local Government Act 2002 passed its third reading last Thursday, easing the way for council amalgamation. It also contained changes to the definition of council business.
Instead of the four "wellbeings" - social, cultural, economic and environmental - that councils were charged with safeguarding, the amendments stipulated that they must instead act in the "interests" of ratepayers, in the most "economical" and most "cost- effective" ways.
Kapiti Coast District Council senior advisor Alison Lash said what the changes really meant was unclear.
"The simple answer is we don't know.
"The Act defines, in Clause 7 sub-section (2), the meaning of 'good quality services' but there is no comparable definition for what is meant by 'interests'. This is a real problem."
Ms Lash said advice from the Department of Internal Affairs was that the new act will not impact on the current Annual Plan or Long Term Plan.
Local Government New Zealand chairman Lawrence Yule said that could open council decisions up to costly legal challenges from groups of ratepayers.
"For instance, the Chamber of Commerce could say 'we don't think you should be running a fireworks display because our rates are too high'," Mr Yule said.
The most well-heeled groups could end up dictating what is and what is not core council business.
"That is a risk, but it won't be tested until there is a judicial challenge," he said
"Most of the things, if not all of the things we [councils] do are at the request of our ratepayers, outside of our core business, such as roads.
"That's the issue. That's going to have to play out as to whether our fears are realised or not.
"Our worry is that it is just a waste of time and resources to get legal challenges."
Kicking off the bill in March this year, then-Local Government Minister Nick Smith said councils had set targets for NCEA pass rates, greenhouse gas emission reductions and reducing child abuse in their communities.
Although those were real and important issues they were not the responsibility of councils, he said. Introducing the bill to Parliament, Mr Smith's replacement David Carter said the reforms were aimed at limiting rates increases.
Kaipara District Council had 18,000 people and debts of $80 million, he said.
Mana MP Kris Faafoi said the amendments undermine the viability of effective local government in provincial New Zealand.
"If the National Government is really concerned about rates increases then it should restore the funding for local roads that they sucked out of provincial New Zealand to pay for their uneconomic 'Roads of National Significance'," he said.