Council likely to balance books before target

There will be plenty of talking points as city councillors sit down today to debate this year's draft annual budget - with a host of mayoral proposals aimed at reinvesting in the city.

But it could be discussions around the future shape of some council services and infrastructure that may prove most contentious, with the spotlight set to fall once again on the city's pensioner housing stock.

This year's annual plan process is the first to be carried out under new legislation granting mayors executive powers, including leading the development of council budgets.

Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker said changes to the council's financial management had put the city in a better position than forecast in the long-term plan, with staff predicting efficiency savings of $15.4 million this financial year.

The council was also on track to balance its books before its target date of 2017.

The upshot was the city was now in a position to reinvest in the city's assets.

"The council has spent three tough years getting the finances in order," Ms Hardaker said.

"The turnaround in the state of the finances in three short years is outstanding, putting the city in a position today where we can build on the city's assets . . . while keeping to the financial plan," she said.

Among the potential big winners is the Hamilton Gardens with a proposal to complete five themed gardens within four years.

The gardens proposal would see two-thirds of costs met by the Lotteries' significant projects fund, with the council's one-third contribution funded by a targeted rate per property of $10 a year, for four years.

Ms Hardaker said the gardens was the most used and visited facility in the city.

"For the cost of two cups of coffee a year for four years, this proposal provides the opportunity to grow revenue from the gardens to offset operating costs and to reach that goal of being the world's leading design garden."

Another mayoral priority is a package of initiatives aimed a boosting safety in the central city.

The safety package includes reinstating the daytime City Safe patrol in the central business district six days a week, installing six new CCTV cameras and reviewing council bylaws and policies that impact behaviour in the city centre.

Other key proposals earmarked for discussion over the next two days include: free access to pools for under fives; transferring responsibility for running the buses from the regional council to the city; and the development of a Waikato River plan for the city.

Meanwhile, scrutiny will fall on a number of council services and infrastructure as councillors debate the implications of changes to the Local Government Act.

Up for discussion include "value-add services" offered at Waterworld and Gallagher Aquatic Centre; the provision of event sponsorship; community assistance funding and provision of community advisers; and housing for older people.

A council discussion paper on housing for older persons notes the city's housing stock is old and requires upgrading.

The paper also asks whether the council should own and tenancy manage its current housing stock and if it was to deliver the service "how should that service be delivered and to what level?"

Ms Hardaker said the Government wanted local government to focus on core services.

"Reviewing what we do and why we do it is important, just like it is for any business.

"These assessments can cause a lot of debate but I think it is healthy to take a good hard look at these things, and make sure we are doing what we need to do in the most efficient and cost-effective way."

Waikato Times