Campaigner attacks mayors' stance

Analysis of a report, which Taranaki's four council leaders say proves local government doesn't need reform, has been rubbished by rates campaigner Len Houwers.

Released in December, the auditor-general's review of the long term plans of New Zealand's councils found that "local authorities are planning to live within their means and are not raising rates to unreasonable levels".

Yesterday Taranaki mayors Harry Duynhoven, Ross Dunlop, Neil Volzke and regional council chairman David McLeod issued a joint statement claiming the report cast doubt on the need for the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill.

Introduced last year amid claims that councils were spending too much money on "non core" services, the bill would require councils to provide infrastructure and services in a way "that is most cost-effective for households and businesses".

"On the back of a small number of high-profile cases, a picture has been painted of an out-of-control local government sector raising rates and debt without consideration of the consequences. Like councils throughout New Zealand, we contend that this picture is severely misleading," the mayors said.

The auditor-general's report found rates across the country were forecast to increase at an average of 5 per cent annually during 2012-22 while council operating expenditure was forecast to increase at an average of 4 per cent.

Last year New Plymouth councillors passed a 10-year plan that brought with it an average 5 per cent annual rates increase. In South Taranaki and Stratford it was 4.4 per cent while Taranaki Regional Council rates did not increase last year, thanks to a healthy dividend from Port Taranaki.

The mayors also said a recent New Zealand Institute of Economic Research report had stated local government debt was well below "internationally benchmarked levels".

NPDC has debt of $140.75 million, which is forecast to grow to $173.49m by 2022.

STDC has $91.5m to grow to $142m in 10 years while SDC's $5.6m debt is predicted to increase to $6.86m.

Taranaki Regional Council has no debt and is not forecasting to take any on.

But New Plymouth rates campaigner Len Houwers said there was no statement in the report which said any of the country's local authorities were "doing particularly well".

He said the auditor-general also explained that what constituted "prudent and long-term financial sustainability" was a matter of judgment and therefore it was difficult to be definitive about an individual local authority.

"The Taranaki region is also a mixed bag. Whereas the TRC is ranked 74th out of 77 in terms of having no debt, the NPDC is ranked as eleventh-highest debt out of 77 local authorities.

"If you take out the growth regions where you might expect debt to increase to fund core infrastructure, it is closer to being the third-highest. Hardly something to be proud of," he said.

Mr Houwers said it should be noted that the auditor-general did not report on council policies but rather matters of process and statutory requirements.

Taranaki Daily News