It’s Local Government Annual Plan season again, and regional and district councils across the country are preparing their annual plans for public consultation. Unlike Christmas the annual plan season is not something that communities count down to with anticipation of lavish celebrations or expensive gifts. In fact local government annual planning is more akin to looking at the credit card bill after Christmas. Reading through the pages of charges and sighing that buying grandma a set of pearl handled revolvers instead of a new hot-water bottle cover was probably not a great idea. So with all of the best intentions you begin planning the rest of the year paying off your extravagance. Vowing that next year Christmas will focus on “family togetherness” rather than showy tokens of fiscal love. It’s a scene celebrated far more regularly across households than the nativity.
Like your credit card bill statement, local government annual plans are an opportunity to scrutinise the financial management of your local regions and how it might affect you as a ratepayer or householder. In some respects its akin to being a shareholder in your community, with the annual plan prospectus revealing the nature and direction of the community you have a stake in. For ratepayer and householder shareholders it should be an area of major focus. This is because a Council’s financial well-being and management affects your societal and economic bottom line. From the universal charges you pay through rates for rubbish collection, water and sewerage, to the fees you may have to pay to license your dog, bury or cremate your gun-toting grandma or the cost of getting the kids to school on public transport. All of these things have an effect on your budget and lifestyle.
The ability of your local authority to provide essential and community-oriented services makes our lives a little easier and on the whole makes communities better places to live. That has a flow-on effect to our economy and our well-being. Importantly too, local government must recognise that communities are consumers of services and that some of those services are not available in a competitive market. In reality local government is the sole supplier of those services and as such the provision of those services must be fair and equitable. The annual plan is often the only real opportunity to ensure that those issues of fairness and cost effectiveness are debated by the community that uses them.
Then of course there’s those big-ticket items in annual plans, capital expenditure on new roads, sewerage systems, public buildings or sports facilities. This is where local authorities often come unstuck. It’s actually essential that Councils are finely tuned to the community’s needs as opposed to its wishes and whims. Household choices over expenditure are much the same. Dad and the kids are lobbying mum for a 50-inch flat screen TV, and grandma (who hasn’t gone home since Christmas) wants to be able to see a life-sized Ken Barlow on Coronation Street. Meanwhile, the washing machine is making strange clunking sounds and the oven is acting like a cremator on steroids.
Ultimately, household economic decisions are based on opportunity cost, choice, available capital and need. Mum might not be popular for ensuring that the washing machine is the next big purchase, but the decision is accepted based on need (that’s why we have Lotto to allow people to dream). The notion of choice and need around capital expenditure is certainly something that councils need to consider very deeply. However, it gets complicated because local government is a political institution that sways under external political or social pressure as well as internal political interest.
(Picture Courtesy of Vintage Everyday)
It appears that many people take little notice of annual plans in their area, often through cynicism of the political process, lack of understanding or even apathy. Those conclusions are certainly visible when looking at the meagre 43% of voter turnout in Dunedin’s 2013 local body elections. Which then begs the question, how do you change that and engage the public more? One answer might lie in ensuring that annual planning is an on-going process throughout the financial year making measurable results of expenditure outcomes more available to the community as they occur. Another option might be making annual plan material far more accessible and practical for people to be able look at the proposals and how they might affect the individual. Nothing galvanises people more than giving them a clear understanding as to how the annual plan might affect them at a personal level. Either way, my advice to all residents is take the opportunity to consider the current annual plan and how it affects you in your daily life. Consider whether the vision that is promoted before you is your vision too. Does it reflect what you value and desire as a place to live, work and play in? Be bold and brave and prepared to say what it is you want and what it is you need, you might be surprised to find that others feel the same way. Merry Christmas!