Core Activities - Ian Barker
This Opinion piece by Councillor Ian Barker appeared in the Nelson Mail on 12 June 2012
LET'S SPEND RATES ON CORE ACTIVITIES
During the last 10 years I have seen an unprecedented swing of the pendulum towards executive control in local government. The result of this has been the loss of direct accountability to residents by elected councillors.
There has been a huge reduction of accountability and transparency in virtually all parts of Councils operations and a reaction has been inevitable.
Last week the Governments Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill was introduced to Parliament. Back in 1980 when I began employment with the city council there was a push for councils to diversify from core activity and by 2002 this push resulted in the 2002 Local Government Act which introduced a new very broad purpose for local government. The relaxations saw the broad purpose of local government extended to include the social, economic, cultural and environmental well being of communities. The Act also restricted elected members across NZ to the theoretical role of governance and no involvement whatsoever in management related matters.
Since 2002 in Nelson, on an increasing basis a plethora of policy plans have been written; huge exercises to create visions have been carried out; environmental, and arts related staff numbers have grown and there has been a huge growth in the number of non commercial organisations seeking funding from the ratepayers to enable them to carry out the so called delivery of social well being.
I have recently browsed through council's cheque payment list for the six months ending 31 March this year. Under the category of "grants"
I totalled a figure of $1.1m. which is over $27 out of the pockets of every single resident of Nelson.
The council has significantly increased expenditure to maintain non core activity pet projects and uneconomic ideals of sustainability.
There is continual pressure to increase debt and take over responsibility for independent but economically unsustainable organisations including the Suter, the School of Music and the Theatre Royal.
Today throughout the country we see antagonism, annoyance and threats of revolt following continuing and compounding rate increases.
So to me the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill is a real step in the right direction as it contains several requirements that will ensure transparency and disclosure of key costs and incomes. The Bill is also aimed at reducing red tape, minimising the rates burdens and limiting debts.
Two years ago as a result of the City Council resolving to submit to the Government in opposition to the introduction of benchmarks to allow citizens to compare there council's performance against others, I independently, and at my own cost, submitted direct to the Select Committee for the Local Government Act 2002 Amendment Bill. The thrust of my submission was that during the term of the last Council, staff numbers had increased by 28 to reach 245 with a salary cost increase of $4.1m. The matter of greatest concern to me was an over emphasis on environmental, arts and heritage, and other non-core things. I contended that the increase in non-core activity was the major cause of excessive rate increases and that introduction of standard NZ wide bench marks would allow communities to better judge the performance of their elected bodies.
It is pleasing and rewarding for me to read in the Bill that it recognises the need to establish benchmarks for income, expenditure and prudent debt levels. It also intends to enable Councils to determine policies on remuneration and staff numbers and to require Councils to report information on staff numbers and remuneration in council annual reports. It has been interesting to note that councils have relied upon professional consultants to recommend salary levels for chief executives which have seen salaries leap frog to very high levels, based on the last appointment wherever in NZ. These increases have been extremely controversial in places like Kapati and Christchurch. This system is in reality a negative use of bench marks. Although probably not possible it would be interesting to see a real market process applied and the calling of tenders to carry out the Chief Executive duties.
I have already detected defensive statements from local bodies, the Society of Local Government Managers and Local Government NZ in relation to the Bill and many meetings and travel is already being planned to coordinate council responses.
At this time my council is in the process of considering over 800 submissions to its long term plan and as usual there is a strong call for greater expenditure in a number of areas but particularly for facilities for the arts and sports. My cheque payment study mentioned above also revealed payments in the 6 months of over $82,000 for travel, over $118,000 for refreshments and over $395,000 for entertainment and festivals. While economic growth is said to be the reason for subsidising entertainment and festivals it is hard to see the benefit to actual ratepayers as only the tourist industry really benefits. There is strong argument to target rates to the industry beneficiaries as the Tasman District Council originally intended to do.
Council's long term plan includes a compounded increase of 40% in rates over the next ten years which ratepayers are telling us is unsustainable. One of the reasons for the planned increases is the cost of providing an enhanced public transport system but unfortunately the early indications are that it is not being used at a sustainable level.
Should the Bill become enacted I believe it contains the necessary changes to empower elected members to once again concentrate their councils on the essential activities that only councils can perform and to consequently avoid costly non core business. Ratepayers should support this legislation as it is aimed at regaining affordable rating levels and having councils operating efficiently I will be supporting it strongly.
Ian Barker has been a Nelson City Councillor for 11 years. He was previously employed by the Dunedin City Council where he began work as a council cadet.
In 1980 while working as Secretary to the Mayor of Dunedin and after gaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree he moved to Nelson to take up the new position of City Secretary.