Its been an interesting last few weeks locally as the City Council deliberates over the Annual Plan. I managed to catch a couple of submissions from Peninsula residents on the Portobello Road widening schedule. Most speakers spoke well and passionately about the road issues, but one question that was raised regularly by Councillors was whether Peninsula residents would support a targeted rate.
It’s not the first time that the financial issues around the use and development of Portobello Road have caused consternation on the Peninsula. In 1888 the Portobello Road Board instituted a toll on the low road from Waverly ostensibly to raise revenue for maintenance and development. The toll was universally disliked by local people particularly dairy farmers who took their milk to town daily. The Peninsula community felt the toll had been undertaken without consultation and in 1891 a petition was presented by residents to Prime Minister Richard Seddon who recommend the toll be reduced by half. During the 1890’s the Portobello Road became popular with cyclists who lobbied the Road Board to reduce the toll from 5 shillings to sixpence. There were a number of prosecutions of residents for evading the toll or refusing pay. The favoured method was to claim that wagons were being used to convey children to school as this use of the road was exempt from the toll. As motor cars became more common they too were banned by bylaw on the Portobello Road until nearly 1910, though they did regularly use the road and arguments over the toll continued.
Today it seems that the schedule of which areas of Portobello and Harington Point Roads are to be upgraded is a tough decision, with Peninsula residents feeling that their individual community needs should come first. That’s probably a fair assumption given that as ratepayers they already contribute financially to the project. The Peninsula Road is one of the Council’s key priorities of the Strategic Cycle Network . At no time during the development of that strategy was the notion of a targeted rate ever raised as the project is being funded by rates and subsidy funding from the NZTA. Historically, attempts by local authorities to ask Peninsula residents to pay above their normal rates contribution for roading have been unpopular. I suspect that a targeted rate to accelerate this project today would meet with the same response.
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.
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!