Time for a Cull-like epiphany here too?

Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013

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OPINION: Dave Cull has, apparently, experienced an epiphany.

After many years of controversial projects and growing spending, the Dunedin mayor now suggests that maybe the time has arrived for his council to concentrate a little more on diminishing its debt mountain and the corresponding burden on its ratepayers.

He says that maybe, just maybe, he and his council have been a little profligate in the past with the ratepayers' money; that in hindsight they could have worked harder to pay off debt rather than build more facilities and glamour projects.

Now you may wonder what the politics of the deep south have to do with the good folk of Taranaki, but just as it is in Dunedin, this is the year for local body elections. And we are wondering if other politicians considering their future might be about to experience similar revelations.

Judging by the auditor-general's review of the long-term plans of New Zealand's councils, and the reaction by our region's mayors, Taranaki's leaders have yet to drink Mr Cull's Kool-Aid.

Apparently the auditor-general's office is comfortable with an average year-on-year rates increase of 5 per cent over the next decade (New Plymouth District Council's could rise as high as 7 per cent in any given year.)

Our four local body leaders believe that the report is a big tick for their mission statements and a black mark against the campaign for local body reforms.

They say the media-generated image of council spending out of control is "severely misleading"; that it is reinforced and sensationalised by the antics of the odd council that gets itself into trouble, such as Mr Cull's Dunedin City Council.

But that would represent a dangerous form of myopia if it were to continue further into the year and closer to the local body elections.

Concern over the inexorable rise of debt and the rates to fund it is not a media beat-up invented to sell more papers and lure eyes to websites. Questions raised about the conduct of senior managers at the New Plymouth District Council are not put forward and debated as a mere exercise in public titillation.

Local bodies use public money - a large and growing amount of it. That should mean a healthy amount of scrutiny too. And a willingness to respond. The NPDC has at least acknowledged concerns about rates increases by undertaking a review of costs and services.

But we wonder how serious it is about cutting costs and the burden to its ratepayers when it foreshadows few major changes (and savings?) and sees little need for reform and tinkering through central government legislation.

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Still, the saying goes that we ultimately get the government we deserve. Which means it's all very well for the likes of campaigner Len Houwers and others to bleat from the sidelines. That is fulfilling just one aspect of democracy - a healthy debate. As we know, there is some influence to be derived from that. But if you want real change it's time to get in the game.

- Taranaki Daily News

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