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?!

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 $150 million in spending would amount to a not paltry $7.5 million. How many businesses and households will need to cut their expenses 5% in the coming year?!

Actually, the Hastings Council has identified one 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.

OK, that’s I didn’t see in the plans that bothers me. What are some of the key issues that are presented in the ten-year plans? Here’s a BayBuzz “Top Ten” list.

BayBuzz Top Ten

In Hastings, for my first two I’ll go with Councillor Wayne Bradshaw’s issues, as he discusses elsewhere in this BayBuzz Digest.

1. Deferred maintenance – overdue expenditure on upkeep of social infrastructure, like footpaths, neighborhood playgrounds, and Council-owned halls, clubhouses and other community facilities. Ratepayers need to ask why Council has failed to keep pace with basic maintenance requirements for these assets, and then address what must be done funding-wise to close existing gaps in service levels in a more expeditious manner.

2. Sharply increasing debt – Hastings debt will rise from $68 million to $96 million. Ratepayers must question the overall debt level, and the types of activities that are debt-funded. As Nick Stewart says in this Digest, not all debt is bad. But debt needs to be used in only the right circumstances, and not to fund current services while artificially reducing near-term rates.

3. Heretaunga Plains land use – the Hastings LTCCP presents formulation of a land use plan for the Plains as more or less its #1 strategic priority. But it’s time for action to match the rhetoric. And consideration of long-term constraints on water supply must be part of the equation. Tied into this is a $3 million District Plan review, which would reflect any broader strategies and public expectations regarding further urban and rural (including coastal) development in the District.

4. “Customer service” scheme — given its huge $4.7 million price tag over the next three years, this project must be rigorously challenged. Personally, I’m open to hearing the case; but I don’t think it has yet been made, including in the LTCCP documents. It’s not clear that this is not simply a building scheme, wrapped in “customer service” rhetoric. The Chief Executive is reorganising his senior management structure, and all incumbents need to re-apply for newly advertised senior positions. This reorganisation could have far greater impact on “customer service” at HDC than new customer management software and call centres … at far less cost.

5. Commercial ventures – the Council’s future role and expenditures in what should be commercial and entrepreneurial activities must be examined – Splash Planet, the Opera House, the proposed Council-owned property development company – as well as its marketing support role and funding for signature events in the District.

In Napier, Mayor Arnott, in her interview in this Digest, has flagged one key issue – stormwater management – that I would agree with.

6. Stormwater management — in below-sea-level Napier, this is a “big ticket” item that will pose bigger and bigger challenges. But I would put wastewater treatment under the microscope as well. Many of us don’t think much of the “Biological Trickling Filter” wastewater treatment system that Napier (and Hastings) is installing to turn unacceptable poop into acceptable poop before it is pumped into the Bay. Just as many question whether Napier is properly handling residential sites within the city that still have their own septic systems.

As for the Regional Council, I would endorse the two issues Chairman Alan Dick discusses in these pages, water and investment policy, and add two more.

7. Water strategy – as far as I’m concerned, it’s impossible for the Regional Council to do too much to better understand and improve its stewardship of the region’s water supply and quality. The financial commitment proposed in the HBRC’s ten-year plan is fully justified … so long as it leads to prompt action.

8. Investment strategy – HBRC plan to marshall its investment assets more actively on behalf of regional economic development is exciting. It potentially puts the Regional Council in a more energetic role in terms of facilitating infrastructure and business activities that can protect our environment, conserve our resources and foster sustainable growth.

Related to this is the new responsibility HBRC is taking for the region’s economic development and tourism agency, Hawke’s Bay Inc. The Regional Council will supervise and fully fund the agency, giving it at last a fair shot at delivering on its mission – to be a leader in advancing the region’s economic well-being. For example, HB Inc is taking the lead in planning with all stakeholders for a successful Bay hosting of World Rugby Cup matches and a team.

9. Healthy homes – ensuring healthy homes accounts for the lion’s share of the Regional Council’s rate increase, for those areas affected. However, providing well-insulated, dry and heated homes yields such dramatic health benefits, which spill over into significant economic and educational advantages, that it’s hard to imagine a local government investment with a bigger pay-off.

10. Maori partnership – the Regional Council proposes funding assistance to help build capacity within the Maori community to engage more substantively in the decision-making of the Council. Significant Treaty Settlements related to Ngati Kahungunu are expected, which are likely to provide economic and social redress involving natural resource management. Water policy-making, with its new strategic status at the Council, is just one example of where Maori rights and interests must be better incorporated in the future.

Rates

You might have noticed that I haven’t commented on rates per se. Many of the guest writers in this Digest are greatly concerned about rate levels. I am less so.

What I am more concerned about is transparent, accountable, prudent decision-making when it comes to use of ratepayer monies. If the needs are clearly defined, the priorities are fairly and openly established, the costs are honestly presented and rigorously monitored and contained, and if local government has a unique role to play in advancing a public good, then I’m open to spending the required money.

I don’t start from the Oscar Wilde presumption Paul Paynter cites in his Digest article … “All governments are failures.” The public does have expectations of local government. We want footpaths, safe drinking water, protected coasts, flood control, healthy air and rivers and homes, reserves, playgrounds and public toilets. None of these come free.

According to LTCCP documents, the average urban ratepayer in Hastings will pay $1,625 in District rates. If this ratepayer owns a typical property in Havelock North, he/she will pay another $163 to the Regional Council. In total, $149 per month.

That doesn’t seem excessive. Which is not to ignore or deny that some in the community would find it a hardship, and should seek relief. And that others – myself included, I can assure you – could find examples of wasted or unnecessary spending. In which case, speaking for myself, I’d be just as happy to apply the “savings” to some Council program I deemed a genuine priority.

And that’s the debate – over priorities – that should occur during the LTCCP consultation process, isn’t it?

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