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Local Government

Money does not grow on trees – from a concerned resident and ratepayer

As a resident and ratepayer, I am concerned. In less than five months, our present TCDC councillors will decide on our 10-year 2024/2034 Long Term Plan (LTP). The LTP sets the level of our future rates and fees and what services we may or may not receive for our hard-earned money.
 |  Flemming H Rasmussen  | 
Hahei Beach New Zealand
Summer at Hahei Beach New Zealand

I am not sure we are getting good value for our money for what we are spending.

Back to Basics:

We, the ratepayers and residents, pay the rates and fees. We are the customers.

  • Council can and should not spend money we do not have (sound financial management).
  • Know what your customers want (priorities and wishes).
  • Know what your customers are prepared to pay for.
TCDC Long Term Plan Timeline

1. A financially illiterate council:

We have a financially illiterate TCDC council making long-term decisions on our behalf, spending our money.

For anyone elected as a councillor, the priority is understanding how to run a budget. Council business is significant by any measure (revenue/spend/capital/headcount).

Money is not infinite. Specific core, statute-stipulated services are must-haves, e.g. for urban areas solid waste, drinking water, and storm and wastewater. This is followed by prioritised, affordable, need-to-have services, e.g., community spaces and development, protection of people and the environment. With what is left, if anything, you may have additional nice-to-haves, e.g., cycleways.

Most of our present TCDC councillors have failed to understand that basic concept and are, for the vast majority, ill-equipped to manage this process. Many have little to no prior governance experience and thus fall victim to becoming too dependent on management, an ever-growing bureaucracy of well-intended but equally ill-equipped staff, some of whom create work to justify their job existence.

2. A flawed Process

Back in August last year (2023), the council decided on a new LTP vision statement and key priorities central to the LTP process.

Vision: The Coromandel – live, work and play.

Key priorities: A collaborative, vibrant, safe, connected, and resilient district with sustainable services and infrastructure.

At best, both can be characterised as aspirational, lofty, and vague.

The “priorities” are critical. They determine community outcomes. They determine the level of spending. They determine what services we may or may not receive for the hard-earned money we pay in rates and fees.

Following its August 2023 council decision, a thinly disguised public consultation pseudo-process   has followed.

2.1 None-representative:

In October last year, I got off the couch and participated in a stakeholder meeting on a rainy Sunday afternoon at Monk Street, Whitianga. Less than ten people from the public attended. It was all over in less than an hour. If that meeting is symptomatic and representative of our council’s “stakeholder engagement”, I am worried.

How much “stakeholder engagement” has occurred over summer (the last 6-9 weeks)?

Such a short window and meagre participation make the process flawed and non-representative. Ownership of participation is, in part, on us, the public. However, it remains the responsibility of our elected councillors, with delegated authority to our ever-increasing number of council staff, to ensure the process is representative and transparent.

3. Rates must not (necessarily) increase:

Council activities and staff numbers must not increase per se. Increasing rates and fees are (bar inflation) primarily activity and choice-based.

At the October meeting, open-ended, often loaded questions were asked by well-meaning council staff. Applying open-ended questions at the pointy end of a decision-making process is counterproductive. It is not an appropriate way of facilitating discussion on choice and setting priorities. It quickly, often inherently, leads to biased outcomes.

3.1 Example:

(a) Open-ended question: What (services) would you like the council to be responsible for?

This is a smorgasbord-like approach. Whatever one can think of. Whatever one may fancy (“shoot for the moon kind of thing”). It has its place, but at the beginning of a process, where one attempts to facilitate the generation of ideas. Not to make priorities and decisions.

(b) Loaded question: Would you like us to… [build a cycleway on Albert Street]?

Such a question inherently leads to 3 different answers: Yes. No. It depends. In both examples, only half the required information to provide informed input for council decision-making is available in the question posed.

What is missing is the cost to provide whatever the service in question is. A more appropriate way of framing questions for the LTP would be the use of closed questions based on facts, such as:

Today, the council provides the following services:

  • Water (drinking/storm/waste), which costs $123
  • Roading, which cost $456
  • Miscellaneous Services, which cost $789
  • Etc

Question:

  • Which of these services (in order of priority) would you like council to provide (with your existing rate/fee ($) level remaining unchanged):
  • Which of these services (in order of priority) would you like council to provide MORE of (against an increased rate/fee level of x%):
  • Which of these services (in order of priority) would you like council to provide LESS of (against a decrease in rate/fee level):

Such input takes the process to a decision-making stage, where participants based on a cost-benefit-centric process can provide informed input in a practical, usable format for our councillors to apply in their decision-making.

Conclusion:

Our 2024/34 LTP plan impacts all of us. It is flying under the radar due to a poorly managed council process. The council is running a flawed and selective pseudo-process.

It is not a process of asking and involving the residents and ratepayers about what they want (would like to have) and what they are prepared to pay for.

It is a “cart-before-the-horse-process” with a biased starting point: The premise that our rates and fees must increase, that the Council (TCDC) requires more of your money.

What do you think? E: flemming@mountwilliam.co.nz

Editor’s Note: This was initially received as a Letter to the Editor. Because it raises operational matters concerning every rate payer, resident, and visitor The Informer resolved to publish it as an article to encourage responses.