Penny Webster: Councils must always be prudent, but this shouldn't entail pruning

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As the current economic downturn bites, households and businesses around the region are looking to carefully manage their budgets and spending - especially during the next year or so.

Local authorities should be no different. In fact, with rates as one of the fixed costs facing businesses and households, councils have an obligation to ensure they are being as prudent and responsible as possible.

I fully support the view of Rodney Hide - the new Minister of Local Government - that councils need to focus on delivering core public good activities, as well as giving good value and service to ratepayers.

This approach is even more important in today's strained economic climate. Myself and other mayors around our region are well aware that rate increases - such as those outlined during the last year or so by Rodney and other councils - have been a struggle for many of our ratepayers.

However, I am sure the new minister's call for prudence does not mean councils taking a slash-and-burn approach to the services they deliver to their ratepayers.

Despite new financial pressures, many of the same old challenges continue to face local government - namely adequate service delivery and how we go about paying for it. Councils, on behalf of our communities, need to make sensible and rational decisions around what are acceptable future rating levels, if we all want to continue to enjoy the services we expect.

Rates continue to be the single biggest source of income for councils, to enable them to supply the services required by their communities. Until this situation changes, local authorities will continue to struggle to balance affordable rate rises with an acceptable level of service their communities require and have come to expect.

My own region of Rodney is one of the fastest-growing areas in New Zealand and this growth - while in most cases positive for economic well-being - brings challenges.

The increasing demand on services and facilities throughout the district, including the requirement to upgrade existing facilities, particularly wastewater disposal, has contributed to costs increases. And that has resulted in an increase in the amount that the council must raise from rates.

As a responsible and forward-thinking council, we at Rodney cannot choose to ignore or fail to invest in such necessary facilities because they are so important to our district's future. However, nor can we keep expecting that our ratepayers be the sole source of funding for these amenities.

Meanwhile, as councils we need to become more innovative with how we source such funding. For example, in Rodney, this has seen our council look to private-sector partnerships to help us fund new facilities and lessen the burden on our ratepayers.

Our recent discussions with Watercare about coming up with a way to deliver the people of Kumeu, Huapai and Riverhead a wastewater system is an example of this. By working together, and creatively, we have come up with a swift, cost-effective solution.

The solution we are looking at now will not only give these towns the wastewater system they want - it could also save Rodney ratepayers as much as $11 million.

It is these types of arrangements that will be the way of the future for mine and other councils around New Zealand. It means we will join with strategic and commercial partners to fund and build those big amenities that our communities need, but as ratepayers we cannot afford.

As a mayor I want to ensure effective governance and prudent economic management for our district. This is vital if local government in our region is to remain affordable, viable and delivering the outcomes that our communities demand.

* Former Act MP Penny Webster is mayor of the Rodney District Council and chairwoman of the Auckland Region Mayoral Forum.

- NZ Herald

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