Editorial: No case for a merger

Bigger is not always better.

That was clearly illustrated by the results of a ratepayers report released last week, which compared statistics from New Zealand's 67 territorial local authorities.

The report, put together by Fairfax Media and the Taxpayers Union, compared statistics from each council's annual report, for the year ended June 30, 2013.

As well as ranking councils in terms of average rates per ratepayer, it also compared employee expenses per ratepayer, total operating expenditure per ratepayer, and debt per ratepayer.

The information was independently checked, and all 67 councils were sent copies and given the opportunity to comment on the report. That process has undoubtedly curtailed the expected cries of "But you're comparing apples with oranges!" that would be expected to issue from council chambers in the face of comparisons such as this.

It made for some solid reading, offering useful comparisons against the national average, and against like councils - metros, city councils, provincial councils and rural authorities.

The national average of rates per ratepayer is $2019, and for provincial councils like Timaru, $2005. The Timaru District Council's $1802 compares favourably.

Waimate, too, performs well, with ratepayers paying an average of $1700, the eighth-lowest in New Zealand, and well under the $1906 average for rural councils - those with populations under 10,000.

But it is the Mackenzie District Council - one of the smallest in the country - which came through the analysis with flying colours, with its ratepayers paying an average of $1104, the lowest in the country.

So much for the "economies of scale" that are bandied about when the idea of amalgamation is on the table.

Mayor Claire Barlow and her council and staff should be proud of where Mackenzie sits in the rankings. It is a challenging district - three quite different populated areas within a rural hinterland, a small resident population, and a large influx of visitors and tourists putting pressure on services.

There would now have to be an incredibly compelling reason to revisit the idea of amalgamating the three councils in South Canterbury. In the wake of the report's release, all three mayors were quick to point to their councils' good results as evidence that the structure we have now isn't broken, so doesn't need fixing.

They're right. The suggestion that the two smaller councils are uneconomic and need the bulking up that a merger of some sorts would provide, will struggle to find traction now.

The Timaru Herald