Budget season is unfolding as our various Councils reveal their plans for ratepayer examination. HDC leads off with community briefings in Flaxmere on Wednesday the 16th, Hastings (Council Chambers) on the 21st, and Havelock North on the 22nd.

Of course the responsible thing is for ratepayers to dig into the pertinent documents, find what they like or don’t like, and make their views known.

But this is much easier said than done, as the draft annual plans the public is provided are anything BUT user-friendly!

I’ll wager I’ve spent more time trying to understand the Hastings budget than most citizens. I attended two full days of Council discussion of a draft budget, having read the document prepared for those sessions. I studied closely the official Draft Annual Plan, which is what most interested ratepayers will see. I’ve been wading through the 265-page “detailed” document that only budget gluttons would dare to tackle! And I have a passable IQ.

Still, I’m left with more questions than answers.

For the moment, I reserve judgment on whether the budget folks deliberately set out to confuse things. I’d prefer to think they can’t help themselves, being accountants. But seriously, everyone involved “hands-on” in preparing these public documents should be required to take some kind of “plain english” and “visuals for dummies” courses.

Why? So that public consultation can be meaningful.

Most members of the public have rather fundamental, common sense questions about a local body budget. And in most discussions, the quality of debate reflects the quality of questions asked.

Someone at Council should draw the assignment of anticipating those questions and creating a public discussion document that clearly illuminates the answers. (The accountants can keep their private spreadsheets with cash flows and depreciation schedules in their desktops.)

In fact, Councils might actually find less ratepayer angst if key issues were clearly presented than if they persist — unwittingly or not — in obfuscating the issues. There’s scarcely a ratepayer who doesn’t want something from local government and is also prepared to happily pay for it. What they don’t want to pay for is what they don’t understand or don’t trust.

Sure, there are ideologues who can’t stand the thought of sharing a dollar with the tax collector, but let them blabber. The rest of us live in a society and are prepared to pay for it. The budget should talk to us … and forthrightly.

I’m planning to make a budget submission … at least to the HDC. Though I suspect what I suggest will be equally valid for Napier and HBRC budgeteers. Because I’m less concerned with this or that line item than I am with the quality of debate — both within Councils, and amongst the public — that the budget presentations enable … or impede.

Just because the public might ask simple questions, such as …

  • What are personnel costs as a percentage of budget, and why are they rising so steeply?
  • Simon Nixon’s favorite: How much are we spending on consultants?
  • If we only wanted a 4% or X% rate increase, where would we have to cut?
  • How will sharp increases in public debt affect our rates several years out?
  • What are the major expense drivers, and what are we doing to mitigate them?
  • How much will we be paying next year to subsidize SplashPlanet?
  • We seem to have marketing dollars all over the place … does this mean we’re paying for a lot of uncoordinated, possible duplicative activity?

… doesn’t mean the public is stupid. Or anti-government.

Most ratepayers just want to have confidence that they can have some buy-in to priorities, that key trade-offs are transparent, that mistakes with financial consequences are acknowledged and rectified, that there’s some equity in the burden-sharing, and that someone at Council is passionately concerned with controlling costs and ensuring productivity.

With those assurances reasonably given, serious debate can focus on the relatively small number of issues that carry the greatest budgetary implications or that go most to the heart of where the community believes it should be headed.

That’s the ideal. And it begins with lucid budget documents!

Tom

P.S. Don’t miss the latest at www.baybuzz.co.nz

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