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Critics fear ‘wishy-washy’ rates bills

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Proposed changes to the law governing how councils deliver their services has critics worried ratepayer money will be wasted on “wishy-washy” projects.
But councils are supporting the move, saying that removing cost as the main focus for local government will lead to better outcomes for communities.
This week will see the first reading in Parliament of the Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Bill, which will restore the four well-beings which were removed in 2012 by the National-led government.
Changes would see an emphasis placed on promoting the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities, as opposed to councils being required to meet needs through infrastructure and local public services.
The new wording omits the phrase which states councils should function “in a way that is most cost-effective”.
Backing the move is the Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta who says the bill will aim to reintroduce the ability of councils to collect “wider development contributions”.
Masterton Mayor Lyn Patterson said steering the focus away from only doing what was most cost-effective enabled councils to address important local environmental issues such as air quality which go unresolved due to their price tags.
“Environmental issues are going to cost money.
“The new wording is just recognising that dollars aren’t always the best result and we can focus on other areas.”
Carterton Mayor John Booth called the reinstatement of the four well-beings a “very welcome return”, and the bill did not need to stipulate that councils be cost effective.
“My council is very aware of doing what’s best for the ratepayers and most councils do things in the most cost-effective way they can.”
Local Government NZ president Dave Cull is “delighted” the government has taken action to amend the bill.
“Local government around New Zealand has been seeking reinstatement of the four well-beings in legislation to once again recognise the work to deliver social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes for communities.
“These importantly acknowledge that local authorities have a broader role in fostering liveable communities, than simply providing ‘core services’.”
But critics, including Wairarapa MP Alastair Scott and the Taxpayers’ Union, a lobby group, argue councils will put less emphasis on keeping down costs and have more leeway to ramp up “unnecessary spending” on difficult-to-measure outcomes rather than core services.
“How do we make people accountable for those four things?” Mr Scott asked.
He said the ambiguity of the wording could see councils focusing on social and cultural issues to the detriment of economics, and vice versa.
Mr Scott said the softer wording meant it was all down to councils’ interpretations within a criterion which was too hard to measure. “You could have two different councils emphasising two different things and both say they’ve done a good job.”
Wairarapa Voice representative Ron Shaw said there were mistakes in the new wording of the bill, and the removal of the words “cost-effective” opened a door for councils to continue avoiding spending on “the un-sexy infrastructural stuff”, such as installing water meters and fixing pipes.
“The thing that struck me the most was that it was taking away restrictions on the councils that were put in place for a very good reason and basically giving them an open cheque book.
“If we gave the councils more money to spend and gave them an open-ended mandate on what to spend it on, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what would happen next.
“All that money would get spent on Chinese pagodas in Kuripuni and Ascension sculptures.”

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