Staff increases should focus mind

It might seem like parody to some that, fresh on the coat-tails of a rate rise of  more than 7%  — with another 5% rise due in the next financial year — the Dunedin City Council has announced it will fill an extra 41 full time equivalent roles.

The reasons for the staffing increase, according to  Mayor Dave Cull, include increased council spending and higher expectations from ratepayers.

Notwithstanding Mr Cull’s assertion some of the roles are "cost-recoverable" — as they will be replacing tasks at present farmed out to contractors — the argument that the council’s increased spending requires increased staffing levels, which, presumably, will require an ongoing increased spend, could be construed as utterly Machiavellian with many ratepayers.

Rightly or wrongly, most ratepayers would prefer to see the recent and ongoing rates increases spent on more "stuff", rather than more staff. More water pipes, more sewerage upgrades, more facility upgrades.

It is also likely most ratepayers consider the current staffing levels at the Dunedin City Council to be adequate or above adequate — long have cities held the opinion their own civil servants are less efficient and less motivated than their private-sector counterparts.

That view has long existed because people have long been able to refer to examples perpetuating it. When one is working for profit, for the tangible goal of increased wealth, one will generally work harder than when the state is the paymaster — or so the assumption goes.

But all these arguments are moot. The rumblings in the community about over-staffing, wastage, inefficiency, core council roles and snouts in troughs, miss the ultimate point. Which is, what is the alternative? A city run by one or many private sector firms, reaching greater levels of efficiency but gunning for profits to benefit their shareholders? While the private sector may be a leaner beast than the public sector, the fruit of those efficiencies are funnelled off to enrich the private owners — not the city as a whole.

Some argue city councils should stick to core rolls only and remove spending on "frills". But who decides what is core and what is a frill? And what is to be done when the next city up the road invests in more and better frills, and its wealth and liveability increases accordingly?

The reality is, at least for the moment, the current system is the best we have. The way to improve it, as far as ratepayers are concerned, is to ensure it is held to account.  That doesn’t mean berating council staff for having or doing their jobs, or castigating them for every mistake — real or perceived. It doesn’t mean classifying all elected representatives as being "out of touch" when, with our short three-year terms and single transferrable vote system, each of our elected members truly are products of democracy.

The way to hold our civil servants to account is to ensure we elect the right councillors, with the right skills, experience and mindset, to do that job for us. And we get that chance on October 12 this year.

The best thing ratepayers can do to ensure a lean, efficient and clever council is to educate themselves about the current candidates. Read meeting minutes, which are all available online, or better yet attend some meetings. Find out how councillors have voted, what stands they have taken, what accountability they have demanded of council staff.  Find out how busy councillors have been in their civic roles, what ideologies they may believe in and whether those ideologies come before or after their duties as city councillors.

And, when election season comes, research the new candidates, what they stand for and how they can help ensure the council is well run. Because, while it is easy to feel disconnected from the affairs of city hall, it is all of us who ultimately run the place.

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