Pay freezes and staff caps being proposed by city and district councils already running scared from proposed ministerial powers to sack them are frightening the staff.
PSA organiser John Shennan said the Local Government Act 2002 Reform Bill would give central government "unbelievable power" to intervene in local democracy.
It was little surprise some councillors hearing the message that the Government wants councils to control rates and debt were prepared to propose sudden and irrational measures.
He pointed to Wanganui District Council's vote this month to freeze staff wages and salaries in the coming year that was only narrowly defeated.
In another effort to control rates, Horowhenua District Council voted in April to cap staff numbers at 90, their level at that time.
"These decisions need to be thought through and researched," said Mr Shennan.
"For councillors to suddenly propose radical cuts to staffing at the end of a long meeting is blatantly stupid."
In Wanganui's case, Mr Shennan said there was no evidence that what was proposed was a good move.
It also "flew in the face of employment law", undermining the ability of employers and staff to negotiate pay and conditions in good faith.
The reform package proposes giving mayors and councillors powers to control staff in ways that are at present the responsibility of the chief executive in managing resources to meet council policy goals.
Mr Shennan said the union did not reject the need for local government reform, but there were some aspects it was "very nervous" about.
He said while the Government line was that rates were too high, that was ultimately a judgment for ratepayers to make.
Instead, councils were likely to be cautious in the extreme given the proposed new powers the local government minister would have to intervene in their affairs.
The bill contained a range of powers, up to appointing a commissioner to take over.
"Even the threat of that is hugely powerful.
"It takes away a layer of democracy that is a fundamental tenet – no taxation without representation."
Mr Shennan said the irony of the criticism councils were facing now, was that those who had kept their rates consistently low for many years were the ones in the greatest difficulty now, because of deferred maintenance and investment.
Those that had experimented with staffing cuts and outsourcing services had also found contracting could be a disaster.
The PSA said there were sound reasons why some councils carried a higher level of debt than others as they planned for growth.
On the other hand, there were some who were heavily in debt because they had made "hideously wrong" decisions.
Mr Shennan said he could not see how the reforms would prevent such wrong decisions being made again.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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