OPINION: Ratepayers like to criticise their local council, no matter how well it might be performing.
And that's because councils cost us money, and we ask, for what?
Conveniently forgetting the water that comes out of the tap, the sewerage line that works magic, the road outside our gate and the library book beside the bed.
And remembering in a flash the pet project that you felt was a total waste of money. Your money.
So when Local Government Minister Nick Smith criticised councils for their debt levels and rates increases, he would have had a lot of immediate support.
But I reckon that's a bit unfair.
Why? Because central government has directly and indirectly imposed extra costs on local government over the years.
Sure, we all want drinkable water, but when the government imposes strict criteria, it comes at a cost. Likewise reductions in roading subsidies. And requirements under the Resource Management Act. And ... the people who ultimately pay, are us.
Councils up and down the country have been caught too with hefty infrastructure costs, which could be blamed on previous administrations, but that doesn't make the problem go away. But it makes sense to raise loans to spread the cost of that over future ratepayers. It's either that, or have hefty rates increases now. You can't have it both ways.
Where Dr Smith might be on the right track is in remuneration of senior staff, and there have been examples of excess. The Tony Marryatt saga in Christchurch is a clear example.
It's hard to imagine the same test being applied to salaries in the private sector as the public one, where there's no imperative to make a profit. Sure, there's a budget to meet, but the bottom line can be shifted simply by increasing rates a few points. Unlike private business, the consumer has no choice but to pay. But for all that, I'm not sure how Dr Smith proposes to benchmark wages. Compare them to MPs?
But some councils are obviously confused about their role. Hosting soccer matches or V8 car races shouldn't feature, and neither should setting pass rate targets for NCEA. These though are probably isolated examples, and no doubt councils could argue that some of the non-core functions they've undertaken are ones central government has abandoned.
Ratepayers though will welcome someone calling their local councils to account, even if there's some hypocrisy involved. After all, isn't it the Government that collects GST on rates? Go figure.
- The Timaru Herald