Editorial: Don't tune out because it's low

Last updated 05:00 22/02/2014

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OPINION: Invercargill City Council is in danger of being beaten half to death by backhanded compliments after announcing a proposed 0.43 per cent rates increase.

For once ratepayers may feel more inclined to scrutinise the details to seek reassurances that figure isn't too low.

That this feels like such a hugely different perspective is testament to the relentless, sphincter-clenching series of increases that people have been trying to live with in recent years. Decades, really.

But "could be worse"' doesn't mean it couldn't be better. What must not happen now is that the proposal wafts into reality for want of detailed public scrutiny from opposite directions - for its real-world sufficiency and for any further reduction potential.

Given the assurance that no cuts in core services are involved, it is tempting to conclude that the council is acknowledging having trimmed the very fat it for so long denied having.

Finance chairman Cr Neil Boniface depicts it more of as "a change of culture" in the council. That would be the very culture that the council has, rhetorically anyway, insisted was healthy and disciplined all along.

This cultural shift is in no small part a move away from the previous approach - not exactly proudly proclaimed at the time, you might think - of taking money from the public and squirrelling it away for rainy days.

Now the council is simultaneously saying that this is unwise, and that one of the main reasons it can reasonably leave so many upcoming expenses excluded from this budget is that it can call on those squirrelled-away reserves to help meet the costs later on.

Some substantial issues are unbudgeted - especially polluted stormwater, Kennington sewerage and uncertainty over the Funding Assistance Rate for roading.

The future of Anderson Park Art Gallery and the Scottish Hall are not addressed either. As for earthquake strengthening, we do see a role for the council here, but must acknowledge it's a debatable issue and the debate really hasn't occurred yet.

Hailed as this budget's greatest success is the $500,000 savings from the council renegotiating its electricity contract. And well might you say "jeeze".

The question now becomes whether this reflects a really good piece of negotiation this time, a really bad negotiation last time, a bit of both, or just the happy consequence of rather inscrutably improved circumstances. Same goes, to some extent, for the $265,000 savings in the budgeted costs for interest and insurance rates.

The second biggest rates offsetter identified is a $300,000 increase in the dividend from the council's holding company Holdco. Here's where people might wish to remind themselves they pay power bills as well as rates bills and seek information about where Holdco might be getting this money from.

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Some of the "savings" are increased fees - notably 30c an hour on street parking fees and $5 to $6 increases in dog registration fees - and some through cutbacks.

Least controversial cutback?

It's hard to imagine the public rising with one voice to say how dare you cut $30,000 from staff training, though this call may creep back to mind the next time we find ourselves grizzling about Town Hall's bureaucratic incompetence.

- The Southland Times

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