Will Hawke’s Bay’s five Councils ever be joined in holy or unholy polygamy?
The short answer is no.
The long answer is that it could happen, but it would be a shotgun wedding. With Wellington being the outraged father of the bride and the multiple bridegrooms being dragged kicking and screaming to the altar using every imaginable (and some unimaginable) reasons as to why the bulge in the belly of the bride had absolutely nothing to do with them.
There are many reasons as to why a sensible approach to local government cooperation has never happened in Hawke’s Bay. There are all the usual suspects – selfishness, parochialism and jealousy among others.
Although to be fair, after years of intensive negotiations and high level workshops, Napier City Council has decreed that a book borrowed in Napier may be returned to the library in Hastings. The Cathedral bells rang out that day.
But there is another impediment to good local governance, equally important but seldom acknowledged … the method used to calculate how both politicians and council staff are paid.
Politicians could never agree on their salaries. At Parliament they still can’t, which is why the PM gets paid slightly more than a bus conductor and they top up their salaries with generous travel allowances, cheap booze and other dubious perks.
Some years ago, politicians tired of the endless bickering and handed the whole problem over to a Higher Salaries Commission. This body sets pay and conditions for politicians and top civil servants by providing an unbiased view of their worth. This works as well as can be expected in a country where everyone in power knows everyone else and deals are done on the golf course or in the Koro lounge, then massaged for public consumption by PR specialists and communication consultancies. However, the Commission served its purpose, since politicians can now plead innocent to all charges since they act on the recommendations of an independent body.
The problem is that the Commission assesses the worth of elected officials on the size of the council budget and the value of the council’s asset. So the bigger the budget, the fatter the pay packet. The more monuments, the higher the wages. The Mayor of Little Dotsville, proud custodian of three trucks, two shovels and a one-room public library, is paid one-tenth of the salary of the Mayor of Bigtown, who superintends a vast collection of public utilities and a council building the size of Fiordland National Park. Staff remuneration follows a similar pattern.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to see which way the wind blows. Unlike the private sector, where efficiency results in increased rewards to the owners and operators of the business, within local government exactly the opposite applies. The more efficient and effective the council, the less all the participants get paid. Efficiency and cost cutting equate to slow suicide.
In private enterprise, a drop in revenue or a massive increase in costs result in the firm going broke or the shareholders sacking the directors. Councils can be as extravagant as they please. If citizens don’t pay the rates, the bailiff comes round and sells their property. A council that is lean and mean and hungry for improvement is a threat to itself and, by example, to its fellows.
In theory, the Audit Office monitors local government. In practice, the Audit Department ensures only that council decisions are made in line with policy arrived at by due process. The Audit Department will okay a private jet for the dog ranger as long as the decision was made lawfully, and is line with council policy. The Audit Department is a paper tiger.
So it is not surprising that both politicians and council staff oppose anything that threatens their prosperity, much less their survival. It would be strange if they didn’t. This is not to demonise politicians or council Staff. They are all (or nearly all) charming, well-meaning and capable. But they are also human, and it is all too easy to equate the public good with personal job security and career advancement. And there is a certain guilty pleasure in spending lots of other people’s money.
Naturally, if the politicians are highly paid, their staff must be equally valued. And so over time the County Clerk morphed into Chief Executive Officer, with a six figure salary to match. And it trickled down all the way to the Stop/Go Man who became a Traffic Management Officer and flew off to the annual Lollipop seminar in Sydney.
That is why, within living memory, no local council has ever instigated a budget reduction, cut staffing levels, shared a computer, demolished an office block or downsized a vehicle fleet. Nor has there ever been a well-researched, independently peer-reviewed study of the benefits of sharing services or amalgamation.
Five of everything
In fact the opposite applies. Overlapping concerns serve as an excuse for protracted and time consuming negotiations between councils. More resources, bigger budgets and more staff time. Hawke’s Bay has five councils that produce five Walking and Cycling Strategies, which generate five Walking and Cycling plans. Five Coastal Strategies spawn five Coastal Plans. Five Asset Management Strategies give birth to five Asset Management Plans.
Five of everything under the sun. All pretty much identical and all requiring input and comment from the other four councils. And most of them have to be reviewed every three years. It is a non-stop gravy train, and anyone who puts a foot on the brake risks losing his job.
And that is why real reform will never happen; although every ten years a joint council initiative will be commissioned to look into scoping a strategic overview of the long term governance of the region with a view to reporting back a mandating concept some time before the next ice age.
There is a way it could change.
The Regional Council has a mountain of cash. Every year the three District Councils and Napier City ask them for money for projects – sports parks, hockey fields, museum renovations and theatre refurbishments.
The Regional Council could legitimately refuse their requests on the grounds that they could and should fund their own projects by savings made through sharing services. Savings made by combining roles and functions – such as planning, rating, computers, roading, bulk purchasing – would run into millions of dollars a year. One plan to bind them.
Such an approach would galvanise even Napier City into some form of positive action. But for reason known only to itself, but probably related to the fact that groups under threat unite to fight their common enemy, the Regional Council has always been reluctant to use the big stick.
And possibly because if Hawke’s Bay ever did have a highly efficient, brilliantly functioning, unified system of local government, the community would ask: “Why the hell did it take so long?!”
Sadly, the answer is largely that progress was penalised while inefficiency was rewarded. And you the ratepayer accepted it, satisfied that you could return your books to any library.