Cutting the council cloth

Here we go again. Anyone observing Dunedin City Council debates over the past two decades will be experiencing a sense of deja vu. Pressure goes on for more spending and the councillors crumble.

This is the very council that, supposedly, gave itself a rates rise cap for the coming years - well above the inflation rate.

This is the council that would get its finances on track and it developed a plan to pay down debt steadily.

But during the submissions and debate on the long-term plan push came to shove and the councillors were pushed.

This is what is happening.

The cap is being breached, the debt track is stretched and financial discipline is sacrificed to assuage public submissions and for what are often worthy causes.

And this is what will happen in several years' time - future councillors will blame their counterparts from a previous generation.

It was their fault there was so much debt and so much ongoing spending was required.

They were imprudent and we are now suffering the consequences.

Councillors must surely know the city has been here before and heard the same excuses for extra spending, both capital and ongoing.

They have in the past received warnings from staff about the consequences of their actions and they have brushed them aside.

They have scurried around at the last minute and somehow staff have found extra savings.

Doesn't it feel better to say yes than no? Doesn't it seem better to look back on your time as a councillor and remember those projects for which you had some responsibility rather than be seen as a scrooge?

Comments about taking notice of the weight of submissions are especially concerning. While that must, of course, be a consideration, councillors are stewards for the whole city and its finances and people.

They have to be careful not just to respond to the most squeaky wheels.

They have to be tough about what a small city can and should manage.

What often occurred previously was that councillors would largely ignore increasing debt, only calculating the cost of servicing that debt.

There are again echoes of that. Some councillors also appear to be placing as little emphasis as possible on operating costs.

Take the proposed South Dunedin library.

As was pointed out, it is far more than the capital cost (perhaps $5.25 million) which will put pressure on budgets but rather the ongoing staff, maintenance and other expenses that occur every year.

Swimming pools are another step up, and the focus for decisions on Mosgiel needs to be on operating costs year after year and not just the large capital outlay.

As it is, group chief financial officer Grant McKenzie, responding to questions from councillors over the risks the council faces should it build the pool, warned the council could be pushed beyond its self-imposed debt forecast of $230 million in 2021.

That could affect the council's credibility with rating agencies and Audit New Zealand.

It was not so long ago councillors pressured council companies for unsustainable dividends.

While it could be argued staff warnings were too muted, councillors with open ears and minds would have heard rumblings.

Council staff, for their part, were endeavouring to please the ultimate decision makers, the councillors.

How convenient it was, subsequently, to blame the council holding company and senior staff when the dividends had to be slashed.

It would be salutary, too, for councillors to examine what was said in the past about the tracking of debt.

When big projects were approved, graphs were produced showing how all would be well so many years forward.

What occurred, however, is that more projects and more spending came along in the interim and the debt tracks were blown to bits.

The biggest project of all, of course, was the stadium. But its funding might have been far more palatable if hard decisions had been made in many other council areas.

Councillors, and some of them are extremely experienced and have been through such debates for many years, are elected to make tough decisions.

This council appears incapable of that discipline.

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