Whangārei is the top performer of Northland's three district councils with rates and operating expenses among the lowest in the country.
That's according to the 2019 Ratepayers' Report released this week by the Taxpayers' Union, a lobby group campaigning for lower taxes.
The report, which is based on figures from the 2017/18 year, uses a raft of mostly financial measures to compare 66 of the country's local authorities.
Auckland Council gets panned for having the nation's highest residential rates, high debt and almost 2500 staff earning more than $100,000 a year once council-controlled organisations are included.
Whangārei District Council fares well with low personnel costs, low operating expenses and the 10th lowest average residential rates in the country — an improvement of five places since the previous report.
Even the often-criticised Far North District Council is rated in the middle of the pack on most measures, and lauded for its low debt servicing costs.
Taxpayers' Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke said Whangārei's efficiency and low spending on staff were reflected in the lowest rates in the region.
In the Far North — where average residential rates had increased from $2300 to $2396, just ahead of the national average increase of $90 — the council's financial performance was ''about average'' for its type.
''One area where the council stands out is its low costs for financing its borrowing. If the Far North has immediate infrastructure needs, such as road sealing, the council could be justified in borrowing more. This is not advice we'd give to many councils,'' Houlbrooke said.
Kaipara ratepayers, however, faced high debt levels, a legacy of the Mangawhai sewage scheme blowout.
''Each household pays $288 every year just to service the cost of borrowing. That's money that could be used on core services like roads or rubbish. Because KDC's rates are already higher than average, they should aim to bring down this debt through cost-cutting,'' he said.
Whangārei District Council chief executive Rob Forlong said the report confirmed the council's own benchmarking, which also showed relatively low rates and a tight rein on expenditure.
''We're pleased that Whangārei District has an efficient council,'' he said.
As for pay levels, Whangārei was the eighth largest local authority in the country so the mayor, councillors and staff were paid on that basis.
Meanwhile, FNDC chief executive Shaun Clarke said staffing levels reflected the size of the district, which has the 13th largest area and 14th biggest population in the country.
''Our population of 64,400 is spread across three main urban centres and numerous smaller towns and communities. Providing a physical presence to serve these diverse communities demands higher levels of staffing than other local authorities with smaller territories,'' he said.
With regard to salary levels, the Far North faced extra challenges in attracting talent north of Auckland and Whangārei, which had been partly addressed with salary incentives.
The mayor's salary was in fact $131,000 but, like councillors, he was reimbursed for travelling around a large district.
Interest costs were low because the council was a ''prudent debt manager'' committed to keeping interest costs to less than 10 per cent of rates revenue, Clarke said.
A spokesman for the Kaipara District Council said the latest figure for the council's debt was $45 million, which worked out at $1086 per rateable unit. (The Taxpayers' Union bases its calculations on households rather than rateable units).
The cost of financing that debt was $2.51 million or $174 per rateable unit.
The Kaipara mayor's current pay, as set by the Remuneration Authority and listed in the 2018/19 annual report, was $100,624.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE AVERAGE
The 2019 Ratepayers' Report, prepared by the Taxpayers' Union, ranks 66 of New Zealand's local authorities on a range of mostly financial measures. A few of the standout findings are summarised below.
Whangārei District Council
The good: Third-lowest council personnel costs, calculated per household, in the country ($714). It's also one of the most efficient councils in the country with total operating expenses per household of $3956 (11th lowest). As a result Whangārei's average residential rates bill, $2060, is also low (10th lowest).
The bad: Councillors and the mayor are relatively well paid (average $52,403, 11th highest, and $139,835, 10th highest, respectively). It's debatable whether this is good or bad; higher pay means more cost to ratepayers, but it may also mean a better calibre of councillors more likely to devote themselves to the role full-time.
The average: Thirty-five staff earn more than $100,000, only slightly above the national average (28th out of 66); the chief executive's pay ($334,904) is above average but not by a huge margin.
Far North District Council
The good: The cost of financing council debt is $94 per household, low by NZ standards. Total council debt per household, $4803, is also relatively low (39th of 66).
The bad: A relatively high staff count (366, 15th highest), 54 of whom earn more than $100,000 (16th highest). The mayor is also well remunerated on $163,000, fourth highest in the country. Again, this is good news if you're an employee, less so if you're footing the bill.
The average: Despite the high staff count and apparently generous pay, overall personnel costs per household are in the middle of the pack. The chief executive's pay ($327,000), total operating expenses per household, and average residential rates ($2396) are also close to, or only slightly higher than, the national average.
Kaipara District Council
The good: The mayor's pay packet ($69,952) is one of the leanest in the country (9th lowest).
The bad: The total council liability per household is $7230 (20th highest) and the cost of financing that debt is $288 per household per year (17th highest).
The average: Councillor and chief executive pay ($298,174 for the latter) is just below average.
*The report does not include regional councils.