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‘‘Financial restraint'' was the message from the public to the Waitaki District Council, Mayor Alex Familton told councillors when they sat down yesterday to set a budget for the next financial year.
Faced with the an annual plan that gave them options to increase rates from about 6% and 17%, councillors opted for an overall proposed increase in the total rates take of 7.2% for the 2008-09 financial year.
‘‘It would be a failure in my eyes if we cannot squeeze more out after public consultation,'' Mr Familton said.
This financial year, the council is collecting about $21.5 million in rates. With the draft 7.2% increase, this would rise to about $23.1 million in 2008-09.
Right from the start of yesterday's meeting, Mr Familton suggested councillors should ‘‘bite as deep as possible'' into the budget.
‘‘We do not want to find at the end of the day we have an increase [in rates] that is not acceptable,'' he said.
Councillors took that to heart, and spent about five hours going through the budgets and scrutinising items staff said could be cut.
But some signalled that the time was coming when the council would have to look at how some of its services were paid for, particularly services like the Oamaru Library and North Otago Museum that were not used by everyone.
Cr Jim Hopkins said that sort of discussion needed to start now. Mr Familton said the present increases in costs were not sustainable. The council needed to pick out areas to signal possible changes and start talking about it as soon as possible.
Some of that involved using surpluses in some accounts - such as $165,000 in roading and $360,000 in Oamaru water and sewerage accounts - or reserves to pay for items, rather than rates.
One item that survived was $100,000 to dredge the Oamaru Harbour and $75,000 set aside for an additional senior planner to speed up progress on the district plan.
At the public forum, ratepayer Ray Henderson said council was ‘‘operating way out of budget'' and, at the very most, any increase should follow the rate of inflation.
The draft total rates increase will go to the council on March 11, along with additional reports, for formal adoption.
It will then go out for public submissions during April and May, before being finally approved on June 24 with whatever further changes councillors make.