Are community benefits overrated?

When it comes to the pros and cons of local government, most of us are seemingly experts.

"They still haven’t picked up that rubbish bin, probably on another tea break." "Those parking Nazis swooped the minute I stopped on that loading zone." "They need to do something about that branch before it comes down in the next gale and hurts someone."

How often have you heard comments like these, berating the abilities and energies of your local council?

You go to your closest library and find it closed early because of sickness. When it reopens, there are rubbish bins and buckets out, catching the drips from the leaking roof. Or you drive to pay your respects to a dead relative and the grass is so long you can hardly find their grave.

Irritatingly, the roads on the way are strung with hundreds of luminous road cones. While there are signs to go slow, there are no signs of anyone working on the street.

Ratepayers can be a voluble lot when it comes to council performance, perhaps becoming increasingly vociferous in recent years as their rates bills continue to rise annually.

While we tend to disparage the efforts of councils, their staff and elected representatives, most New Zealanders have a much closer relationship, out of necessity, with local authorities than they do with central government.

This really is where the rubber hits the road in terms of being governed. It is, somewhat ironically, easier to turn your back on the government, supported by your taxes, than it is your council, supported by your rates.

Councils around the country are coming under mounting financial pressure just to provide and maintain the essential services we expect. As for the provision of new facilities, that is now a pipedream for the most fiscally pinched district and city councils.

For the government to try to teach local authorities to suck eggs and save money is just exasperating. Clutha District Mayor Bryan Cadogan is right in calling it "insulting".

Asked by the ODT about rates hikes, growing council shortfalls and pressure from debt, Local Government Minister Simeon Brown hopped on his high horse and suggested councils follow the government’s parsimonious approach to spending by "going line-by-line through their expenditure to ensure they are focused on core business".

Really, minister? Do you not think many have already been doing that for years while still watching the money drain from their coffers?

Unnatural fauna of New Zealand. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Unnatural fauna of New Zealand. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Mr Brown said some of the GST collected on new housing projects might be shared with councils, and there was some support on the way to help with infrastructure costs.

While those might provide a glimmer of hope through much-needed boosts and potentially a timely tweaking to shore up council finances, Mr Cadogan described Mr Brown’s possible fillips as "meagre".

Mr Cadogan said 80% of the council’s increases were due to Three Waters work, while it had the country’s third-longest road network and 12 distinct communities to serve.

In the United Kingdom, local authorities are going bankrupt, with consequent effects on services. They are constrained by central government over how much they can lift council taxes.

Councils cannot go bankrupt in New Zealand and, as we know all too well, can raise rates as necessary. According to Local Government New Zealand, no authority here has ever been insolvent.

For some, though, the stains of red ink across their accounts are enough to raise fears of just that.

A timely reminder

Microbiologist and science commentator Siouxsie Wiles has won her Employment Court case against the University of Auckland for leaving her out on a limb as an expert commentator, and having to fend off the haters, when Covid-19 struck.

She has been awarded $20,000 after Judge Joanna Holden deemed the university failed to keep her safe by breaching its health and safety obligations to staff. It also failed to be a good employer.

The finding will bolster academic freedom and be good for all those who speak out in the line of duty.

Dr Wiles had been targeted with the most vile threats and repugnant comments one could imagine from seriously twisted, and cowardly, people.

The rap over the university’s knuckles is well-deserved.