OPINION: It's an interesting change, and something of a challenge, to be sitting on the other side of the table during the Annual Plan process.
Every year council goes through the mammoth task of putting together an Annual Plan to let our ratepayers know what we propose to do in the coming year, from water upgrades to community projects. The process is also a chance for people to have their say about what is being proposed.
This year's draft had 46 submissions from the public, some of whom chose to speak at hearings last week.
Rates rises are one of the most controversial topics of any council's Annual Plan. No-one likes to see rates increase and it's a hard task striking a balance between what needs to be done and how to pay for it.
This year's draft Annual Plan proposes a 2.95 percent rates increase. Council has worked to keep this as low as possible, having cut spending by more than $1 million to reduce that increase.
A large contributor to rates costs is roading. It accounts for 74 per cent of council's capital expenditure in the coming year.
The Southland district has the largest roading network in the country but the roads need expensive work or some big changes. Our roads were built about 50 years ago in a time of prosperity and they are now coming to the end of their life. There is growing strain on our roads and on our pockets to pay for them.
There is uncertainty around funding and the policy set by the NZ Transport Agency, which is based on the available funding from central government.
The council is considering options such as changing levels of service and looking at new ways to save money but the burden of paying for roads still falls largely on our ratepayers.
To spread the cost of our roads, council has a roading rate model which allocates costs to different sectors, including the dairy sector, non-dairy and forestry.
This roading model was discussed in some submissions, with some submitters saying they don't agree with how costs have been allocated. Their submissions will be taken into account when we consider the draft Annual Plan.
The agriculture sector is forecast to do well in the next few years, with demand continuing and the global economy expected to pick up. This could be an opportunity for the south, but to maintain and meet the needs of our farming industry we need to have the right regulations and infrastructure in place.
It is no secret that more dairy farms have meant an increase in heavy traffic and without increased funding council simply can't afford to maintain the roads to current standards. With central government allocating less funding, council is facing tough decisions on how to maintain them. The burden is too great to pass on to ratepayers so I hope a new study will help us prove to the Government how big our economic contribution is and why we should receive more assistance.
The contribution Southland makes to the rest of New Zealand is large but can be somewhat un- noticed outside the province.
I recently asked Venture Southland to look at central government and how it compares with the services and funding returned to the region. I believe this research could be of significant benefit to our region.
It will look at how much the region contributes to GST, fuel tax and road user charges and this will give us potentially important information needed for general transport planning, Financial Assistance Rate applications and efforts to retain and grow government support services and other funding.
Council will be looking at ways to improve what we have with the money we've got and will remain positive in achieving a satisfactory solution to this matter.
For me, one of the highlights of this year's Annual Plan process was hearing members of the Southland District Youth Council make a submission regarding the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail.
The group of senior high school students spoke in support of the trail at council's hearing last week, saying they believed it had many benefits, including growth in tourist numbers, spurring other initiatives such as heritage projects and helping people to get more exercise.
They did themselves and their communities proud speaking articulately and with passion. It was great to see our youth representatives having a positive attitude about the work council is doing, but even more importantly I was thrilled to see our young Southlanders standing up and having their say about our province.
I hope we will see our youth voice gain strength and be heard more as these young minds aspire to the challenge of local government.
» Gary Tong is the Southland District mayor.
- The Southland Times
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