Council faces up to hard choices

Nearly three years after the earthquake that devastated large parts of Christchurch, the city council is finally beginning to demonstrate that it recognises it is no longer operating in a business-as-usual environment.

Although the previous council paid lip service to the idea of the need for radical adjustment, there was an apparent reluctance to make the hard decisions needed to make it a reality.

The announcements this week that council officials have proposed that the minimum cost of getting a housing consent for new buildings should increase to take into account additional inspection work and that cuts are likely to be needed to the opening hours for public libraries and recreation and sports facilities show a realistic new focus on what needs to be done if the council is to keep its finances in order.

The particular proposals may or may not be appropriate and must be scrutinised carefully but the fact that they are before the elected members is a clear indication of a welcome change of mindset.

It will now be up to the elected members, a majority of whom are new to the council, to meet the challenge.

The broad options available to the council can be boiled down to three: to raise more revenue, to re-allocate among its budget priorities - in other words, to cut services or delay some projects - or to make asset sales.

The question of asset sales has yet to be addressed, but the proposals put before councillors this week indicate what is likely to come in the other areas.

Councillors were told this week that the rating base had declined by 2.3 per cent and the council faces a larger-than-forecast operating deficit. The decisions to be made will undeniably be difficult and are likely to be unpopular.

There is one option that Mayor Lianne Dalziel appears to have ruled out.

"It's not a question of adding to the rates; it's a question of re-allocating within budgets," she said.

That is the right approach. Rates are already set to rise by 6.5 per cent this year and probably by similar amounts in years to come. Just adding more to property owners' rates burden would be evading the problem not facing it.

As well as suggesting a reduction in the hours at which some council services like libraries and sports facilities are available, council officers have proposed increased charges for things like dog registrations and the hire of community halls and the postponement of the city's new cycleway network.

Probably the most contentious is the proposal to increase fees for consents. Property developers have grumbled about that proposal but if, as acting chief executive Jane Parfitt promises, the previously dysfunctional consents system will improve and it will be money well spent.

All the proposals will be put together for the draft annual plan, due to be adopted later this month, which will then be open to public consultation.

Many will not doubt will want to have their say. But as unpalatable as some of the choices the council will have to make may be it is good to see the council engaging in some hard, realistic thinking being done about what the choices are.

They reflect the hard reality facing residents and ratepayers as the city rebuilds.

The Press