Editorial: Questions, questions

Last updated 05:00 21/03/2012

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OPINION: There will be a general "hoorah" to Nick Smith's bid to put a spending handbrake on local councils.

An average rate increase of 7 per cent a year from 2002 to 2010 across the country is wearing thin, especially as inflation has run at about half that.

At the same time council debt has risen 250 per cent to $8 billion.

At a local level Timaru and Waimate's rates have risen 7 per cent a year, while an influx of residents in the Mackenzie has effectively kept increases to 2.6 per cent a year.

Timaru's racked up a $50 million debt in the timeframe; Waimate $4.7 million. Mackenzie gets the chocolate fish for going through without incurring any debt.

Overall though, plenty of ammunition for Local Government Minister Smith, helped by a few examples of councils putting their noses in where they definitely don't belong. NCEA pass rate targets. David Beckham soccer games.

Councils have argued that recent increases have been due to unavoidable infrastructure costs, which raises the obvious question; didn't they see them coming?

But ... and there is a but ... what are ratepayers willing to lose?

Dr Smith wants to move away from the existing legislation that says councils should focus on social, economic, cultural and environmental responsibilities.

What does that mean. No art galleries or libraries? Surely not.

What about parks and reserves? Pensioner housing, community halls, Christmas parades? It gets tricky quickly.

Yet he says it's okay to fund fireworks on New Year's Eve. So does that mean all the above are okay?

And are we really upset that the council contributes a bit towards hat and hair awards, masters' games, rose festivals and motor racing but to name a few, when such events bring vitality to the district. Or should they be entirely user pays. All of that stuff together would struggle to add up to 1 per cent of rates.

What of economic development? Attracting people here helps in so many ways, including reducing the rating burdon. What's the theory, every council stops doing it and just watch people drift north? Give us a go, please.

Environmental? Forget about air pollution in Timaru; the unique values of the Mackenzie? Not core functions?

Build a $10 million swimming pool instead of a $23 million one? Really? Put Caroline Bay back the way it was? Pull down the piazza?

But ... and there is another but ... are councils really looking at all costs?

Do they need consultants when they already employ qualified people? Do they really evaluate staff numbers? Are ongoing costs scrutinised?

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Dr Smith is right to address the legitimate ratepayer concerns. But don't be surprised if ratepayers are still not happy about what comes out the other end.

- The Timaru Herald

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