Horizons Regional Council is consulting over its long-term plan and asking for feedback, so here's my two cents worth …
The question that keeps coming up in my mind is whether the good people of Whanganui are getting value for their money by being a part of Horizons, the Manawatu-Whanganui council.
It costs us $5.7 million a year, and I wonder whether we should not just dump Horizons and become a unitary authority. We pay Horizons a lot of money - and that is on top of the $88m the community already pays the Whanganui District Council.
Horizons' core service is river management and flood protection, but it also covers public transport, land, air and water monitoring, pest control and biosecurity.
So could we do all that ourselves in-house for a lot less than $5.7m? The answer is probably "yes", especially when we have a competent chief executive such as Kym Fell, along with his capable management team who continually seem to find better ways of doing council stuff.
And the more I think about it, the more I think Horizons does not do all that much for us here in Whanganui - the benefits seem minimal.
I would suggest other parts of the Horizons region - Ruapehu, Rangitikei, Palmerston North, Horowhenua, Tararua, Manawatu, parts of Taupo, Stratford and Waitomo - benefit far more than Whanganui. That's because our needs for Horizons services in Whanganui are limited - we know the problems, we don't need Horizons to keep telling us what they are.
Going it alone may make it difficult at times to find specialist staff who are often in scarce supply, such as ecologists, transport planners, toxicologists and biodiversity management specialists. However, contracting-out some services is always an option.
And let's not forget, the single largest threat to water quality in the region is intensive farming activity in the Mangapapa, Mangatainoka and Upper Manawatu rivers - not the Whanganui River.
While accelerated erosion may be an issue with the Whanganui River, good progress has been made with landowners and occupiers to develop management plans.
And there is also the unnecessary duplication of costs for two extra councillors who are not really needed, along with the local premises Horizons uses for various staff.
Horizons also seems to be great at faking consultation. When councillors like an idea they always seem to find "public support" for it, but when an idea does not fit into their agenda they claim "no public support".
A good example is the proposal for stopbanks for Putiki but not for Anzac Parade. If you read through the Shaping Our Region's Future brochure which was posted to all households, the mind boggles - it is extremely vague, not even a brief explanation of issues.
The use of acronyms like UAGC (how many people would know that meant Uniform Annual General Charge?) and stupid questions like would you like to pay 4.5 per cent interest instead of 5.5 per cent when anyone would choose the lower figure unless you gave them a good reason not to.
It seems to me Horizons is not all that serious about consultation but simply going through the motions to rubber stamp decisions they believe are right.
If Whanganui were to go it alone, we would not be the first unitary council in New Zealand - others include Auckland, Gisborne, Chatham Islands, Marlborough, Nelson and Tasman.
While there may be some benefit in having a "watchdog" to keep an eye on what various councils get up to, a vigilant community always has access to our local MP or the Minister for Local Government, and could always blow the whistle if our unitary council were to go astray.
The time has come for mayor Hamish McDouall or one of our proactive district councillors to put forward a motion and get the process to create a Whanganui unitary authority started.
I am sure a well-researched study would show that savings would be made, and that little is gained by being a part of Horizons. Based on sound research, the public could then make a final decision in a referendum.
■Steve Baron is a Whanganui-based political commentator, author and Founder of Better Democracy NZ. He holds degrees in economics and political science.