We have not been shy about criticizing our local bodies on this blog or in Baybuzz magazine.
However, if I might make an important distinction, those criticisms have been about priorities, the soundness of individual projects and policies, suitability of governance structure to plan and spend efficiently, and the frequent avoidance of public accountability — all in specific instances.
This as distinct from an ideologically-driven crusade to confine local government to some reduced set of responsibilities or to apply some rigid formulaic strictures to squeeze down local spending and debt.
Surely, local funds must be used prudently, according to priorities that enjoy broad public backing, and require a sustainable share of ratepayers’ wallets. We can and should have healthy, vigorous debate over these choices.
But not all local government debt is evil. It should all be totally transparent, easily identifiable and consistently presented (which it is not under present council bookkeeping practices in our region … hence the Napier versus Hastings debt debate) … but it is not evil.
Unless, of course, we don’t want roads, swimming pools, reserves etc. — infrastructure with long shelf-life and inter-generational benefits that should be debt-funded. There’s the rub, of course, one ratepayer’s absolutely essential infrastructure is viewed by another ratepayer as sheer folly.
But politics should be about debating these priorities, including the sufficiency of spending on assets like wastewater, drinking water and stormwater systems, the lines of demarcation between the public and private sectors, and the total amount of debt to be shouldered at any given time; not about whipping up hysteria about runaway local government debt (a problem of just a few councils in NZ) as the National Government is now doing.
[The cynical amongst BayBuzz readers could be forgiven for regarding this local government debt-mongering as a National plot to distract us from central government debt that has blown out in no small part because Government declines to fairly (i.e., adequately) tax the wealthy. Others point to responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of local government when central government decides to pull back the reins on needed services (like low income housing) or simply add/shift duties to local government’s plate.]
I have the same issue with fanning hysteria over current rates. Could our rates be spent smarter? Absolutely. But that said, rates paid in Hawke’s Bay are near the bottom of national tables. Here, I submit, the issue is more one of how we spend than how much.
This week, for example, the Hastings Council will consider a report on the “community contracts” through which it financially supports (about $1.3 million) a variety of community groups working toward the District’s social and cultural well-being. In this “difficult economic climate” (as the report terms it), Hawke’s Bay Racing Spring Carnival receives a $25k subsidy and Horse of the Year gets $35k; the Hastings Food Bank gets $10k — but hey, some of the needy got a whopping three parcels in the past year. If you’re hungry in Hawke’s Bay, you best be a horse.
If we want more bang for our buck, then we need to look seriously about how our local governance is structured. And we also need to look at the insulation of council staffs — which now enjoy uninterrupted growth — from economic reality and political control. These parts of the Government’s local government reform proposals I can fully subscribe to.
So I would ask of John Key and his next Local Government Minister …
Sure, give us the mandate and processes that will permit us to re-structure our local governance to deliver better performance. But then let us set our own priorities about what we want our local government to do. And focus on getting your own fiscal house in order.
P.S. For an excellent column on this theme, read Gordon Campbell here.