Richard Moore: Tackling city debt should be priority

By Richard Moore

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While there is much to commend the adage "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay" as a life philosophy, as a student of history I know that aspiration has rarely fitted into our world.

Through the millennia someone has always wanted to use someone else's labours for free, or near free, and if they have money or power then there is little the worker can do about it.

While things have improved in the modern world, it is only a lucky few who can look at what they do, check their bank balance, and smile because they are being paid what they are worth.

Some people, of course, are paid large amounts of money for barely raising a sweat in their duties.

They normally lurk in big organisations, where they can blend in with the crowd and not be noticed too much. They often have clipboards and live their working lives for the next meeting they can attend.

Then we have the chiefs who get outrageous lashings of dosh - hundreds of thousands of dollars a year - for running public organisations.

In the old days a public servant didn't get paid much, but did have a job for life. Now they pretty much are the best-paid earners in the land and still have a protected life.

On the subject of remuneration, it is good to see Tauranga's city councillors deciding to take a bit of a salary shave in this election year.

The guys and gal were earning a base $75,000 a year for being councillors and this will drop by just under $5000 after the Remuneration Authority changed the pay formula. To make up for the cut, the authority handed out a $104,000 pool of money to be shared among councillors who take on extra duties.

But Tauranga's councillors decided to reduce that pool to about $7000, and the chairmen and deputy mayor of the new council will receive nearly $10,000 less.

The discussion wasn't all one way, as Cr Bill Faulkner opposed a move to abolish the premium paid to a chairman.

Cr Faulkner said workloads were not shared equally and some councillors did not make the same contribution.

He said there was extra work and responsibility, and that was worthy of recognition.

We presume Cr Faulkner doesn't mean a pat on the back, but rather cash-in-the-bank recognition.

Cr Rick Curach said he thought the reward for being a chairman was the status of the job. This was reportedly dismissed by Cr Larry Baldock as the "dreamworld of an egalitarian society".

Cr Baldock is said to have reckoned the fairest thing was when people got paid for their experience and the work they did, and this varied among councillors.

"We are not the same, we will make different contributions."

Too right. But one could ask that if someone's contribution has led to disastrous results for ratepayers, should you then have to pay your salary back?

Now on the subject of saving $100,000 a year from rates, I say that's a start but a very small one.

Don't be mean, I hear you say. But let's just look at some figures, shall we? Tauranga's debt is surging past $412 million and there is more to come, with borrowings for the Southern Pipeline and upgrade of the Te Maunga treatment plant.

By my calculations that means Tauranga ratepayers are paying out $80,000 a day in interest on that debt.

Eighty thousand dollars a day! You can see why I'm not overly excited by saving a similar amount over an entire year.

Larry Mitchell, who produces a league table of local councils based on their financial performance, says of 48th-ranked Tauranga. "Marked drop in performance. Big City woes - debt laden. Ultra High Debt (over $10,000 per ratepayer)."

Mitchell ranked Kaipara the lowest, saying: "Serious financial difficulties and High Debt ($5000 to $10,000 per ratepayer)." Considering Tauranga has many, many more ratepayers than little-old Kaipara, it means we are in a far worse situation.

And look what happened in Kaipara - the council was sacked and replaced by a government-appointed commissioner. If that happened here, it would be very bad news for this city.

In Kaipara, the commissioner came in, saw the figures and clobbered long-suffering residents harder to pay the debt faster.

Tauranga's ratepayers cannot afford more major increases in rates.

But debt is killing our city and it must be dealt with as the only priority that matters.

So, what needs to be done?

Tauranga needs to open its books, call in an independent auditor, and the new council, when elected, should hold a public Financial Crisis Forum.

The aim of the forum would be to find ways, in conjunction with business and ratepayers, to begin reducing the mountain of money this city owes.

It won't be easy, but it has to be done for us and our children.

richard@richardmoore.com

Richard Moore is an award-winning Western Bay journalist and photographer.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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