Minister for Local Government Nick Smith has lambasted New Zealand's councils for their debt level. Kaipara in particular has provided fodder for his argument, with the level of debt incurred to provide a wastewater plant for Mangawhai.
This is a small council facing the usual problems that councils with low populations have - they have to fund all the facilities larger councils provide, without the ratepayer base to pay for it. (Note - When wastewater disposal poses a potential public health problem through pollution of ground and waterways, councils have a responsibility to do something about it.)
Councils have two ways to fund facilities. Borrowing, or rates. They borrow to fund facilities required to support new growth, and subsequently get that money back through development contributions from the developers when the growth occurs. When facilities are required for something like a wastewater plant needed because a community has a potential health issue, then that community has to foot the bill. And that means rates increases.
Either way, councils are on a hiding to nothing. Ratepayers want a lot for their money. They get streetlighting, parks and reserves, libraries, swimming pools and sports parks, local roads and footpaths maintained, security through CCTV, restaurants and liquor licensing and monitoring for health standards, environmental monitoring of waterways, building consents and monitoring, buildings inspected for danger, earthquake and sanitation, dog registration and control, noise control, town planning, water provision, wastewater & stormwater control, emergency management . . .. this is just a small part of what councils do - and all legislated by central government
If every household had to pay for this on a user basis, this would be totally unaffordable.
This weekend there are six major events on in Auckland city. Every single event will have required Auckland Council's involvement. Events are not considered by Nick Smith as being 'core' council activities. But every event requires things such as traffic management plans (legislated by government) and road closures, liquor licensing, street signage perhaps for promotion, liaison in the months leading up to the events. Hundreds of staff hours go into each event. Who will pick this up if councils don't?
I have worked for and within local government. I have local government clients. I don't like their bureaucracy and I believe councils can be much more efficient. But their business is incredibly diverse - much more so than any private business of equivalent size. And on the whole, they do it well.
Putting the Hamilton V8 street races to one side (an ill-researched project that had good intentions, poor execution), events, for instance, are part of what makes a community hum. Take away the Music in the Park events, Christmas in the Park, Sparks in the Park (all those parks supplied and maintained by councils), museums (provided by councils), MOTAT, donations and grants to things like surf lifesaving, rescue helicopters, philharmonias and orchestras (in Auckland's case, 'donations' government-legislated by John Key's previous government) . . . what is left?
A sterile, impoverished community. A community is much, much, more than the price tag of cost of supply and local government is integral to making communities, whether we like it or not. Councils as a sector need to communicate this to their communities and to Nick Smith.
Rather than banging on about the level of rates, energy would be much better spent figure out how best to support councils in their job.
Oh - and I wonder if anyone who has an opinion on their council's performance has actually read, let alone submitted to, their council's long term plan for 2012 - 2022. Bet they haven't.
What do you think? Who will provide events if councils don't? Do you agree that councils should just be about roads, water, sewers and rubbish? Who will take care of all those other things they do if councils don't?