Restraint inertia

It is good finally to see some vigour coming from Dunedin City councillors as they examine ways to tackle spiralling rate increases, even if such efforts are years too late.

The mayor and councillors for far too long have acquiesced to plans and proposals that have ratcheted up costs.

They have, again and again, hid behind the excuse of the inevitability of having to pay for massive sums for essential water and sewerage upgrades and, in their spendthrift attitudes, have not been tough enough in other ways large and small.

They have acted like householders who face hefty mortgage repayments and who are unwilling to save on the cost of new appliances because it appears comparatively small or to economise on the little things, the cups of coffee and the regularly bought lunches.

In themselves, such costs might be just a few dollars here and there, but the prudent homeowner knows that everything adds up, that every saving allows the mortgage to be paid more easily, that all expenses are significant.

Councillors, spending other people's money, have been unwilling to insist on every possible saving, and that council staff numbers and costs be strictly capped.

Instead, they have conceded to "fiscal creep", to the addition of worthy but non-essential jobs and projects.

They have wrung out a little more in savings by reducing the amount set aside for depreciation; they have gone dipping more and more into the stretched coffers of the council-owned companies.

But they have shirked most of the hard decisions.

Now, in some ways, it is too late. Commitments have been made on the current flush of big projects and deferring most of those under way has become realistically impractical.

So it is now suggested councillors turn to areas like the library, the art gallery and the museum - ironically the knowledge and cultural institutions in which Dunedin prides and sells itself - to attempt further savings.

Of course the pressure to practise frugality must remain on these institutions - the Otago Museum cannot expect more than a 2% increase, whatever its protestations about "longstanding shortfalls".

Many businesses have had to make severe budget cuts, shed staff, and in many cases workers in private enterprises have had no wage increase this last year.

The central library, meanwhile, must remain open on Saturdays and Sundays to serve the public because that is when the demand is - retailers would not dare shut at these times.

Any trimming will have to come in other areas and be closely limited.

The bind the councillors are now in shows how ludicrous it is that proposals for a new South Dunedin library have advanced without serious opposition.

Dunedin is a small city, it has to retain its library strengths but cannot afford a new library only a few kilometres - relatively well served by public transport - down the road.

Similarly, the huge costs of shifting the library to the former chief post office are unwarranted even if, once again, the project has worthy elements.

In both the library and the museum budget cases, however, it remains difficult for ratepayers to know what is best because they were excluded from the council debate on the matter last week.

The role of councillors in the plans for a new road at Lovelock Ave, as part of major Botanic Garden redevelopment, well illustrates the nature of fiscal inertia.

They went along with the proposal and hardly blinked at the extra - and some would say unnecessary - spending.

Now, in election year as it happens, councillors are finally questioning the $1 million-plus cost for a new section of road and the wisdom of it.

Our report today disclosing an official forecast of a need for expenditure averaging $20 million a year over the next 50 years to restore and replace the city's underground water infrastructure simply to maintain existing service levels, if soundly based, will be a shock to every ratepayer.

It is simply extraordinary that councillors were only briefed about the forecast on Tuesday for it is a document that must have been months, if not years, in the compilation.

It is the nature of most managers and most public institutions to seek to expand and to justify the need for more spending.

But how many managers receive praise and encouragement in the long term for running a tight ship and reducing staff numbers? Such tendencies are especially marked in publicly-funded organisations where bankruptcy and losses do not threaten and where success is too often judged by size and activity.

It falls, therefore, on those charged with governance, in the city's case the mayor and the councillors, to be acutely aware of these propensities and respond accordingly, most especially where the continuing maintenance of basic city service facilities is concerned.

With only an occasional exception, this council has fallen down on such a fundamental task, and must share the responsibility for its failure with its recent predecessors.


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