In the coming fiscal year, ending 30 June 2010, the Hastings, Napier and Regional Councils will spend a combined total of $281 million. Ratepayers, including businesses, will furnish most, though not all, of these funds. Other sources include earnings from investments, fees charged to developers in payment for council-fronted infrastructure (e.g., water and sewer lines), borrowings (debt), and funding from central government.

The three councils will have incurred for future ratepayers $129 million in debt, rising to $183 million over the next decade.

Are you – the ratepayer – getting value for your levied funds?

Certainly, the ten-year plans (LTCCPs) now out for public consultation would have you believe that. For literally hundreds of pages, the proposed plans detail the programs and expenditures that will achieve our environmental, social and cultural, and economic well-being. Hallelujah!

To be fair, the councils have devoted a considerable amount of energy to attempting to engage us – as ratepayers, community leaders and other stakeholders – in their planning process. These are, after all, called Council Community Plans. The Hastings Council held meetings with key stakeholder groups, published a discussion document, What Should the Future of Hastings Look Like?, and mailed a survey to all ratepayers. The Regional Council also published a discussion document, Embracing Futures Thinking, and met with stakeholder groups. The Napier Council held general public meetings in neighbourhoods around the city, as well as special citizen forums on topics like Marineland and redevelopment of Taradale’s centre.

Note, I said “attempting” to engage us, for very few people actually participated in these pre-planning activities. Not even 600 ratepayers returned the Hastings survey … how difficult could that most modest form of participation have been for ratepayers?! About 600 people (the same ones?!) attended an “Expo” on their plans held last weekend by the Hastings and Regional Councils.

But, there’s still time for civic atonement! The formal consultation periods for the Hastings, Napier and Regional LTCCPs will carry on into early May. Get involved … weigh in!

Here are some observations that might provoke you to do so.

What you won’t see

There’s a huge amount of information in the draft consultation documents I’ve seen so far. I especially commend the “Major Focus” section of the Hastings plan, and “The Right Debate” section of the Regional Council plan. But in this mass of information, it’s important to step back and notice what’s not there. So let me begin with what’s not in the planning materials, or possibly there, but well nigh impossible to find.

I’ve yet to see a real discussion of cost-cutting. Yes, there’s plenty of rhetoric about examining existing programs closely, looking for efficiencies, getting down to the essentials, blah, blah, blah. But nowhere will you find an actual list of specific programs or activities that a council has pared back or eliminated, resulting in savings of XX dollars.

One might expect this to be a routine exercise … making real and significant cuts before adding new stuff. Savings of, say, 5%, across roughly $281 million in spending would amount to a not paltry $14 million. How many businesses and households will need to cut their expenses 5% in the coming year?!

Actually, the Hastings Council has identified one token item it wants to eliminate – the Blackbridge waste transfer station in Clive. To assure us that they were indeed being miserly, the Hastings plan lists thirty-one proposed projects that were not added to the budget … but not adding is different than actually subtracting!

Another subject you won’t see discussed in the plans is councils’ staffing numbers and employee growth.

Salaries and wages, of course, are a major driver of councils’ budgets, but you’ll be hard-pressed to learn much about this in the planning documents. If you ferret around a bit, you might discover that in Hastings, for example, 127 Council employees are working on behalf of your environmental well-being, 234 for your social and cultural well-being, and 29 for your economic welfare. But nowhere will you find simple statements or charts that present simply … here’s where we are now in staff numbers and costs, and here’s where we expect to be in three years. And why.

A final topic given very little treatment is inter-council collaboration, which might, after all result in cost savings, customer efficiencies, consistency of policies and regulations, and even improved outcomes!

Hastings makes a nod in this direction by providing a chart listing some current areas of collaboration among the councils, and by allocating the massive sum of $25,000 next year to identify possible areas for shared services initiatives. Maybe in years two and three Napier and the Regional Council will agree with this list. In year four a task force will be set up to develop a pilot project. In year five they’ll give it a go. Then, if they’re still talking after the pilot, they’ll add a few more in the last five years of the plan!

In all seriousness, this an area that should be given much higher priority. For example, after more than a year’s delay, we are promised that the councils will finally begin their joint effort to formulate a development strategy for the Heretaunga Plains. Don’t hold your breath.

OK, that’s what I did not see in the plans that bothers me. What are some of the key issues that are presented in the ten-year plans? Tune in tomorrow for my BayBuzz “Top Ten” list.

Tom Belford

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