Last week, the Hastings Council spent two days growing the District’s budget.

Working from a spending template driven by the LTCCP, Councillors quibbled around the margins, adding here, subtracting there. The results, pending some re-calculations and follow-up revisions, and public consultation over the month of April, is a 2008/9 budget that will increase rates by about 5.34%.

Just a few observations for now.

The budget documentation provided to Councillors is virtually impenetrable to them (and they’re paid to comprehend it), let alone intelligible to the interested public.

Spending that common sense would indicate should be co-located can be spread across several sub-budgets. Items are buried in obscure categories. No pie charts or graphs simplify comparison of spending levels across categories or years. Etc.

Therefore, simple but important questions the average ratepayer might be interested in are very difficult to answer without a staff interpreter present. Questions like:

  • How much money are we losing these days on Splash Planet?
  • What is the overall amount of money spent on marketing the District, its events and attractions?
  • How over-budget is the Opera House?
  • What percentage of spending are we effectively locked into (e.g., debt interest) versus the percentage that is really discretionary?
  • How much of the “work” of the Council is done by staff versus consultants?
  • Which projects or activities are projected to be most over-budget in 2007/08?
  • Can we really afford a sports park? Can we afford to pay Sam Kelt $25,000 a month to plan it?

The Council’s review process is anything but strategic.

The staff simply begins with the rates increase projected in the 2006/16 Long Term Council Community Plan and fills the spending bucket accordingly. No matter that economic or political circumstances (like five new Councillors) might have changed. The Plan is THE PLAN. Then Councillors spend most of their time noodling over an additional $2 million or so of “wish list” items … some costing as little as $4,000.

The net result is that $22 million of roading expense … the challenge of rising staff wages and salaries (soon to be $20 million) … whether certain activities should be more user-financed … and new borrowings of $26 million … get less attention than the $33,000 proposed for additional waste minimisation programs.

Nowhere in the process do Councillors task the staff to do anything as “radical” as: “Show us a budget that limits the growth in rates to 4%.”

And when the far more incremental question is asked of staff — “Tell us where you might find, say, 5% in overall spending cuts” — the staff runs for cover. “We can’t do that,” they protest, “You (Councillors) must give us direction.” As if Councillors should be micro-managing the computer budget or the staffing of the Exhibition Center!

Maybe, just maybe, Council needs to choose between a sports park and a new arterial road, or between marketing and libraries.

The reality is, it’s a lot easier on staff to let the Councillors exhaust themselves wallowing in minutia than dare to invite them to address the big, strategic issues. And unfortunately for the ratepayer, most Councillors seem perfectly happy to leave it that way.

An exception is Councillor Wayne Bradshaw, this week’s Guest Buzzmaker, who offers some suggestions for improving the budget process.

Napier and Regional Councillors … can you do better than this?

Tom

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