Deciding on service priorities

Dunedin City Council staff have been instructed by councillors to search for savings in costs at every level - yet again - and it is to be wondered what degree of effort has been applied in achieving progress, given the repetitive nature of the order.

Ratepayers may be forgiven for feeling a strong sense of déjà vu.

New savings initiatives have been called for with the hope of reducing the projected whopping 7.5% rates increase for the next financial year.

If talk about savings were measured in dollars, the citizens of Dunedin would be well off indeed.

Yet, in turning the heat on staff once more, what do we find buried in the small print, so to speak? That $200,000 could be required to pay consultants to peer-review the proposed savings, and that some investigations could take months (thus adding substantially to internal costs).

Reducing staff numbers, thereby reducing the council's greatest single operating cost, does not appear to be favoured, although the possibility to selling their services and capabilities to the private sector may be considered.

The recently departed chief executive wanted staff to find $6 million in savings and had some success, evidently identifying some $4 million and hence reducing the prospective rates burden from 9.1% to 7.5%, in a year when inflation is anticipated to be around 4%-5%.

Councillors were told last week it was becoming difficult to find more areas where savings could be made, but they approved the creation of a "digital office", costing as much as $325,000 every year.

The rationale for this venture is, according to the mayor, to make sure other cities do not get ahead of Dunedin in digital development.

To which hard-pressed ratepayers might well ask: is a digital office an essential service, to be funded while other perhaps more basic services face the prospect of reduction? The project has been described as including a wireless internet service across the central city and outlying suburbs, a Dunedin city web portal to integrate information in a single entity, and a computer clubhouse to provide digital access for those without it.

It is suggested the project is planned to work in conjunction with the Government's extended and improved broadband infrastructure, which is yet to come to pass.

However, the Dunedin project is one easily deferred.

The Government's ultra-fast broadband programme does not include Dunedin as a priority.

In fact, the legislation that will trigger its application has not even reached Parliament's consideration - it is presently being examined at select committee stage.

And Auckland will be getting the priority treatment when, and if, the national project commences.

Furthermore, it is quite within the capabilities of individual effort and cost for access to wire-less internet services to be provided in the city now.

Many, too, argue the council's peak oil vulnerability analysis report is a time and money waster - certainly it would seem Minister of Finance Bill English holds it in low regard.

This document presumes to identify local government actions to prepare for high oil prices but Mr English, in Parliament last Wednesday, observed it was likely the report will not be particularly effective, judging from the title of it and the fact a local council has very little opportunity to actually influence the Western world's vulnerability due to its use of oil.

Majorities on the council seem of a mind to regard such projects and reports as matters of great need.

They are not.

They are luxuries.

The council exists to offer services, and all its services must be rated in accordance with substance - if councillors truly are serious about cutting costs.

The mayor, a consistent advocate of the digital project, believes it is essential, referring to the education and health sectors in Dunedin.

But if it is essential, it is up to these state-funded entities to do something about it, not the ratepayers.

The widening canvas being so enthusiastically painted by local bodies and their managers and advisers is not exponential: it is limited by reality, and that reality is defined largely by the very limited pockets of those who provide the funds.


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