The Hastings Council has virtually completed its ten-year plan (LTCCP) review and adoption. The priorities and numbers have been agreed to by Councillors. A few important “process” measures will be debated — and hopefully adopted — next Thursday.

As in anything this complex, the LTCCP outcomes and process display the good, the bad … and the plain ugly.

The Good

In the Council’s own ratepayer survey, about 55% considered the plans initially put forward by HDC, with a projected 2009-10 rate increase of barely 1%, as “too expensive.” However, after weighing submissions the Council actually added around $900,000 for the coming year, with a general rate increase of 2.54%.

So, why do I put this in the “Good” category? Because it could have been worse!

The Council took prudent steps by deferring any further capital investment in Splash Planet for three years (which effectively means an overdue re-think about the future of that money-leaking facility), incurring less debt on footpath upgrades (while still intensifying the pace of those upgrades), and deciding to seek private contractor operation of the Blackbridge transfer station.

What else was Good?

Three deserving constituencies came out of the process a bit ahead. Flaxmere residents stand to benefit from the new U-turn Charitable Trust, which will leverage $30,000/year in Council seed funding with considerable outside resourcing to improve conditions in that community. Hastings youth scored an extreme sports facility, as well as a commitment to consider additional resources to implement the District’s under-funded play strategy, including development of a Marine Parade-like “destination” playground. And the arts community won additional funding to support programs at the Hastings City Art Gallery.

Some aspects of the process rate a “Good” as well.

Citizens who make their views known via submissions can rest assured that their submissions are considered, as the Councillors painstakingly (and I emphasize the “pain” part!) address each one. Submitters might not get the answer they want; but I watched as each one was duly considered … sometimes triggering an astonishing amount of debate. And some Councillors clearly did an extraordinary amount of homework — Councillors Bradshaw, Wilson-Hunt, and Bowers come to mind — to digest the details of the budget.

The Bad

As I’ve commented before, the entire process operates from the presumption that more ratepayer funds will inevitably be spent each year. No alternative is put on the table at the outset that seriously envisions a reduction in expenditure. There’s no re-setting of the baseline. Council staff proffers a dozen or so “savings” (we’re talking a few hundred thousand dollars here) found in its “intensive” review of current activities, and then more or less assumes that spending will increase at least to accommodate inflation.

The net effect is steady year-by-year incremental growth. Plus promises of staff “papers” and “workshops” to address particular issues — like continuing losses on Council-operated commercial enterprises — sometime off in the future, if a couple of Councillors raise a big enough stink.

Councillor Bradshaw has proposed a series of resolutions that, if adopted and implemented, can improve this picture. They deal with such matters as setting a specific percentage target for staff and overhead cost efficiencies, and creating a formal structure to examine and implement shared service opportunities with the Napier Council. More on these resolutions next week.

If Councillors Bradshaw and Wilson-Hunt were the standout freshmen Councillors during their maiden LTCCP process, Councillor Kimber was the class dropout. She attended less than half the public submissions, and missed Tuesday’s full day of Council deliberations, when virtually all the decisions were made. The Havelock North ratepayers she represents were not well served.

The Ugly

The “retail” nature of the decision-making process can be at the same time both mind-numbing and intellectually despairing.

Pleas for $5,000 here … $10,000 there … then, suddenly, a $2.9 million item. Decisions made as much on the basis of the “messenger” as on the intrinsic merits. Decisions that seem to lack any strategic context (or any awareness by some Councillors that there might actually be a strategy). A passionate debate over a $10,000 “curtain bank” request or $7,250 for CBD flowers can be followed by a perfunctory approval (or dismissal) of something far more critical or expensive.

Mayor Yule conducts this performance, and one gets the sense that only he really comprehends the full score. Imagine listening to a symphony where the musicians never get beyond their discordant warm-up notes, and you’ll begin to appreciate what the Council budget process sounds like! It ain’t pretty.

Tom Belford

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