Editorial: Amalgamation looms as hot election topic

Last updated 05:00 19/02/2013

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OPINION: I can never give a ‘yes' or a ‘no'. I don't believe everything in life can be settled by a monosyllable. Betty Smith, American author (1904-1972).

It was inevitable that the call for a united Taranaki council should resurface.

The Taranaki Chamber of Commerce is urging the region's four councils to consider amalgamating to stem what they describe as unsustainable and relentless rate rises.

It is understandable that it is the region's business community calling for the changes. The changing economic climate provides the ultimate impetus for businesses to continually review and adapt. For them it is the nature of survival, let alone prosperity. The financial landscape is littered with the corporate corpses of those businesses which failed to adapt, but, with rare exceptions, local government is exempt from that process. If it's under financial pressure, a rates increase will take care of it. Or maybe turning off a few lights and cutting back on street cleaning.

Understandably, the chamber's call will receive a sympathetic hearing from many ratepayers, especially those on fixed incomes who are struggling to pay their rates. Business owners who have seen the closure of many small rural and small-town branches see the lack of integration of councils as King Canute-like in trying to vainly stem an inevitable tide.

As chamber deputy chairman Karl Dudley pointed out, four well-paid chief executives, four similarly remunerated executive management teams, four lots of publicly elected representatives and the capital and overhead costs of four buildings that would be the envy of any private enterprise, could surely be streamlined.

There has been no meaningful review of the need for four councils since they were created in 1989. But is it as simple as that? While we want our councils to act in a business-like manner, they are not businesses in the true sense of the word.

Central government is supportive of any amalgamation, but shies away from any forced mergers. Those affected communities have the final say. Those people have to vote in favour of them before anything happens. Like communities may well support such a move, but just how "like" are the communities of New Plymouth, Stratford and South Taranaki districts?

The mix of rural and urban communities and the sheer geographical contrasts within the region pose some significant challenges that would need to be overcome. Ultimately, how would the good people of Waverley feel about dictates coming from a New Plymouth-based, or at least dominated, council?

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South Taranaki mayor Ross Dunlop is a savvy politician who was quick to defend his patch, but he avoids the issue in concentrating on the merits - or lack of - of the Chamber of Commerce. This is an idea which must be debated logically without parochial bias and should be a hot topic in the local body elections later this year.

Local needs being met at a local servicing level, versus reduced rates, is a debate all ratepayers in Taranaki are owed.

The New Plymouth District Council's chest beating about its $1.4-million cost savings could well be a drop in the proverbial ocean compared with the potential savings of one united council.

- Taranaki Daily News

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