OPINION: During the past 10 years I have seen an unprecedented swing of the pendulum towards executive control in local government. The result of this has been the loss of direct accountability to residents by elected councillors.
After a huge reduction of accountability and transparency in virtually all parts of councils' operations, a reaction has been inevitable.
Last week the Government's Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament. Back in 1980, when I began employment with the city council, there was a push for councils to diversify from core activity and, by 2002, this push resulted in the 2002 Local Government Act which introduced a very broad purpose for local government.
The relaxations extended the purpose of local government to include the social, economic, cultural and environmental wellbeing of communities. The act also restricted elected members across New Zealand to the theoretical role of governance and no involvement whatsoever in management-related matters.
Since 2002 in Nelson, on an increasing basis, a plethora of policy plans have been written; huge exercises to create visions have been carried out; environmental and arts-related staff numbers have grown, and the number of non-commercial groups seeking ratepayer funding to enable them to carry out the so-called delivery of social wellbeing has grown hugely.
I have recently browsed through the council's cheque-payment list for the six months ending March 31 this year. Under the category of "grants", I tallied up a figure of $1.1 million – more than $27 out of the pockets of every single resident of Nelson.
The council has significantly increased spending to maintain non-core pet projects and uneconomic ideals of sustainability.
There is continual pressure to increase debt and take over responsibility for independent but economically unsustainable organisations, including the Suter, School of Music and Theatre Royal.
Today throughout the country we see antagonism, annoyance and threats of revolt following continuing and compounding rate increases.
So, to me, the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill is a real step in the right direction as it contains several requirements that will ensure transparency and disclosure of key costs and incomes. The bill also aims to reduce red tape, minimise rates burdens and limit debts.
Two years ago, as a result of the city council deciding to oppose the Government's planned introduction of benchmarks to enable citizens to compare their council's performance against others, I independently, and at my own cost, submitted direct to the select committee for the local government bill.
The thrust of my submission was that, during the term of the last council, staff numbers had increased by 28 to reach 245 with a salary cost increase of $4.1m. The matter of greatest concern to me was an over-emphasis on environment, arts and heritage, and other non-core activities.
I contended that the increase in non-core activity was the major cause of excessive rate increases and that introduction of standard New Zealand-wide benchmarks would allow communities to better judge the performance of their elected bodies.
It is pleasing and rewarding for me to read in the bill that it recognises the need to establish benchmarks for income, expenditure and prudent debt levels. It also intends to enable councils to determine policies on remuneration and staff numbers and to require councils to report information on staff numbers and remuneration in council annual reports.
It has been interesting to note that councils have relied on professional consultants to recommend salary levels for chief executives which have seen salaries leapfrog to very high levels, based on the last appointment wherever in New Zealand. These increases have been extremely controversial in places such as Kapiti and Christchurch. This system is in reality a negative use of benchmarks. Although probably not possible, it would be interesting to see a real market process applied and the calling of tenders to carry out the chief executive duties.
I have already detected defensive statements from local bodies, the Society of Local Government Managers and Local Government New Zealand about the bill, and many meetings are already being planned to co-ordinate council responses.
My council is considering more than 800 submissions to its long-term plan and, as usual, there is a strong call for greater spending, particularly for arts and sports facilities. My cheque payment study mentioned above also revealed payments in the six months of more than $82,000 for travel, more than $118,000 for refreshments and more than $395,000 for entertainment and festivals.
While economic growth is said to be the reason for subsidising entertainment and festivals, it is hard to see the benefit to actual ratepayers as only the tourist industry really benefits. There is strong argument to target rates to the industry beneficiaries as Tasman District Council originally intended to do.
Your council's long-term plan includes a compounded increase of 40 per cent in rates over the next 10 years, which ratepayers are telling us is unsustainable. One of the reasons for the planned increases is the cost of providing an enhanced public transport system but, unfortunately, the early indications are that it is not being used at a sustainable level.
Should the bill become enacted, I believe it contains the necessary changes to empower elected members to once again concentrate their councils on the essential activities that only councils can perform to avoid costly non-core business. Ratepayers should support this legislation as it is aimed at regaining affordable rating levels and having councils operating efficiently.
Ian Barker has been a Nelson City Council member for 11 years. He was previously employed by Dunedin City Council where he began work as a council cadet. In 1980, while working as secretary to the mayor of Dunedin and after gaining a bachelor of commerce degree, he moved to Nelson to take up the new position of city secretary.
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