Editorial: Ratepayers have to look past the figures

So now, it seems, there are lies, damned lies, statistics . . . and council rates rises. This week's stoush between Nelson MP Nick Smith and the region's two councils illustrates, if nothing else, the sensitivities of politicians and the ease with which numbers can be bandied about to support a claim.

Perhaps it also reflects the interest there is in this key aspect of the relationship between ratepayers and the councils - the annual rates demand.

To recap, Dr Smith complains that in the past decade, total rates income has gone up by a compounding average increase of 13 per cent a year in Nelson and 12 per cent in Tasman, and the debt of both councils has more than trebled in that time.

The councils point out this does not mean the average increases individuals face have gone up by that amount, and part of the jump in Nelson was caused by water charges being added to rates in 2006.

Surely both parties are correct. The total rates income in Nelson has soared from $17.2 million in 2001 to $51.1m in 2011, an overall increase of 197 per cent. Tasman's increase has gone from $18.5m to $52.6m, a rise of 184 per cent. Even in the period from 2006 when Nelson's water charges were added to the figure, its rates income has gone up $18.7m.

That does not mean all individual ratepayers are paying close to 200 per cent more in rates (and water charges) than they were a decade ago. Population and business growth mean there are now more ratepayers to contribute to the total rate take, though that also can mean a greater demand for council services and consequent greater costs in supplying them.

Individual property revaluations, rezoning and the like can affect individual rates bills, as of course can shifting house.

The councils say that rather than the 13 and 12 per cent Dr Smith is quoting, he should have referred to the average annual rates increase which, for the ratepayers of both councils, was around 8 per cent.

This is debatable. As long as the distinction between total rating income and average annual increases is made clear, surely both sets of figures are relevant and of interest.

Perhaps the most pertinent point is that both have gone up significantly more than the rate of inflation - which on latest data is less than 1 per cent.

Local councils tend to say that the CPI is a poor measure of their performance as it does not measure some of the more significant factors in council business - roading costs, for example.

However, it is a very relevant factor in the lives of those who struggle to pay their rates demands. And let's not forget that rates increases themselves have been significant drivers in the CPI of late.

Councils must tread a difficult path between meeting the demands of growth, expectations of their constituents that they will not only supply the basics well but also help produce vibrant, exciting communities - while at the same time seeking maximum efficiency and keeping rates increases to an absolute minimum.

This is a difficult task, but not impossible - and something ratepayers have every right to expect their elected representatives to commit to.