Local board submissions due

There is only one week to go before submissions close in the Local Government Commission’s (LGC) consultation on a Golden Bay Local Board.
As the community weighs up the pros and cons of a change in local government structure, it essentially boils down to a simple question: Are potential improvements in local decision-making and budgetary spending worth paying for?
The answer, however, is complex, as a lack of clear information on costs and benefits makes a rational analysis problematic. As in many policy decisions, the intangible and/or long-term benefits have to be weighed against short-term tangible financial costs.
Despite the difficulty, the arguments can be explored by examining each of the three options listed on the LGC’s submission form:

  1. Support the retention of existing arrangements, ie community boards (not local boards), in Golden Bay and Motueka.
    This would maintain the status quo, allowing TDC to retain a high degree of control over Golden Bay’s decision-making and spending. But there could be some loosening of the reins; the council’s submission to the LGC (available on TDC website), states additional responsibilities could be granted: “The existing community board is empowered with a number of decision-making responsibilities, and these are always open for expansion where legislation allows.”
    Golden Bay ward councillors Celia Butler and Chris Hill, along with community board member Grant Knowles, have all stated publicly that the community board could do a lot more, but despite these sentiments, and despite a recommendation from the LGC in 2007, there has been little meaningful expansion of the community board’s portfolio of responsibilities since its inception.
    When TDC has agreed to extend community involvement, Golden Bay Local Board Working Group secretary Tony Lawton says it’s rarely been about making decisions.
    “I was involved with a request to TDC for delegation of Port Tarakohe to be managed by our community in conjunction with the community board in 2014. TDC’s response was to set up another advisory board for the port. Advice isn’t decision-making. Delegations only work if there is an excellent relationship between the community and council, and the budget to perform the delegations is also delegated.”
    It’s clear from its submission that TDC would be happy to retain the current community board, stating: “The council believes there currently is an appropriate balance between local decision-making and district-wide decision-making, especially given the way in which activities are funded.”
  2. Support the option of a Golden Bay Local Board
    One of the key differences between a community board and a local board is that delegations made to the former can be withdrawn by council on a whim, whereas allocations made to the latter can only be reversed if both parties agree. The democratic advantages of a local board, listed by the LGC in its consultation document, include better local decision-making, improved local governance and effective response to the opportunities, needs and circumstances of Golden Bay.
    The anticipated benefits need to be balanced against the costs of operating a local board. Estimates vary considerably, but costs will depend on the breadth and depth of responsibilities transferred to a local board, which in turn represent the benefits of the new body.
    Golden Bay ratepayers are currently charged a targeted rate of approximately $20pa per property to fund their community board. Based on a report by Philip Jones and Associates, the LGC estimates the additional annual costs of supporting a local board would be as follows: $42,284 for board member remuneration, $240,000 for a dedicated support officer (including overheads), plus $190,000 in indirect costs. The LGC calculates this would add approximately $75pa to Golden Bay’s targeted rate.
    TDC believes it would require 4.5 full-time equivalent members of staff to provide support – a lead team member, a customer support officer, a senior and part-time advisor and a PA/community liaison officer.
    Rather than looking at the additional costs of supporting a local board in Golden Bay, the council’s costings are based on the total $900,000pa operating costs of Auckland’s local boards such as that in Waiheke Island – a community that shares may similarities with Golden Bay. Depending on how the costs are apportioned between the general and targeted rate, TDC estimates that the annual cost per Golden Bay property would be $283.18, or $40.11 if spread across the district.
    Philip Jones, an experienced consultant the LGC ranks highly and has used before, explains the apparent discrepancy.
    “I was asked by the LGC, ‘What is the additional cost in terms of the service transition from council to a local board, not the total costs?’ The council will already have been incorporating some costs. There are services being delivered to Waiheke by the local board that would not happen with TDC.”
    Whichever way the calculations are performed, a local board is almost certain to cost more – at least in the short term. But Tony believes that medium-to-long-term efficiency gains, increased community-based decision-making, and targeted use of local budgets could reduce council expenses and improve service delivery. “TDC recently spent $500,000 on legal costs on two Golden Bay issues, and there could be savings from reduced travel costs and time for council staff. The Commission is right to say that these regional benefits should be offset against the increased governance cost of a local board.”
    Ignoring any potential democratic benefits, TDC maintains a negative stance towards the local board proposal, stating in its submission: “On the basis of what the LGC has presented, we are unconvinced that a compelling case for a local board has been presented given the likely cost implications to the Tasman community generally and Golden Bay in particular.”
  3. Support the option of a Golden Bay local board and a local board or boards elsewhere in Tasman District
    This would involve a significant loss of central control and a distribution of budgets to the wards, and according to its submission, is TDC’s worst-case scenario. “Should the Commission decide on a local board, the Council’s least preferred option is five local boards across the District due to increased costs, increased inconsistency of policy and service levels across the community and cuts across communities of interest.”
    The current system of governance across the district, however, is far from consistent. In addition to the community boards operating in Golden Bay and Motueka, there are numerous community associations covering many of the district’s smaller communities, including Brightwater, Dovedale, Mapua, Marahau, Moutere Hills, Motueka Valley, Murchison, Rotoiti, Tapawera, Tasman, Torrent Bay and Wakefield. Although they have different titles—associations, councils, and committees—they all exist to support and advocate for residents in their local communities and make submissions to council on a range of issues of concern for the local community.
    Tony suggests this fragmented, ad hoc network could be harmonised if four or five local boards were set up across the district. This would establish a system of consistent representation, allow delegation of responsibilities—and budgets—to local communities, and offer scope for reduction of overhead support costs, as in Auckland’s centralised services model for its 21 local boards. He argues that reallocation of TDC’s $4.5m annual central governance budget to cover some local board governance costs “would potentially allow for a lower cost-per-ratepayer (around $60 per annum) to achieve the benefits of community-level decision-making, both here and for communities over the Hill”.
    TDC doesn’t consider this possibility in its submission, stating only that, “costs and staff resources would be considerably higher with additional local boards to service”.
    The scenario of a system of local boards is about to become less likely if TDC has its way; in its submission, council asks the LGC to set the threshold to progress new requests at 10 per cent of the entire district’s electors, not just of the ward in question.
    Making a submission:
    The LGC commissioners have made it very clear that they will consider the quality of the arguments in the submissions when they make their decision. Tony says the commissioners have deliberately avoided taking a prescriptive approach but instead “are looking for considered input from the community to ensure any changes they decide to make are community-driven and in conjunction with the Commission”.
    The Golden Bay community now has until next Friday to weigh up the additional costs of governance against the potential benefits of more control of its own affairs.
    Submissions can be made online at the LGC website, or via email or post to the LGC.
    Submissions close on Friday 14 August.
    Article and photo: Jo Richards.