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Where do our rates go? With the council, you never know

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Where do our rates go? With the council, you never know
By John Tamihere


Everywhere you look in this country you are slapped by taxes.

If you were to add all of central government's hidden taxes like car registrations, Warrants of Fitness, diesel and petrol tax, or payments to doctors and schools, PAYE and GST, you'd have to wonder where the hell all our money goes.

There never seems to be enough to fix the problems across the spectrum and, most importantly, to our humanities.

But add the real elephant in the room- council rates - into this equation, and the burden on Kiwi wage and salary earners is starting to become unbearable.

Take our largest city, Auckland, which has a population of 1.4 million. It is managed by one of the best paid and largest bureaucracies outside the central government's silos of health, welfare, education and justice.

The thing with councils is, they are monopolies and their leadership often tries to compare itself to the private sector. An example of this is Auckland City Council chief executive officer Stephen Town comparing the number of his well-paid staff who earn over the $100,000 and $200,000 wage packages with employees of Spark, Fonterra, Air New Zealand and even Fletcher.

At least with the companies mentioned by Town, there is some competition - the council has none.

What's also interesting to note is that these companies are not funded by tax- or ratepayers, yet they all have greater scrutiny, exposure and accountability.

Auckland City Council calls itself a parent and employs about 7200 people. Wellington and Christchurch combined employ 5000 people.

But the 7200 employed by the Auckland Council does not include the huge council-owned monopoly companies: Watercare - which employs around 1000; Panuku - which has around 150 staff; Ports of Auckland - 500 FTE's on the job; Regional Facilities Auckland which has more than 600 employees on the books; Ateed (Auckland Tourism and Economic Development) which has around 200 employees and the mighty Auckland Transport, which has 1000+.

On top of that, add the consultants and contractors who who clip the tickets when they are brought in to outsource work. With all these folk shuffling paper, you have to wonder how they all get measured.

See, I can measure what goes on in a construction site because you sign off and see infrastructure being built. Large pipes being connected, foundations poured and ultimately an end use is delivered.

The problem with multi-billion dollar councils is the election process, where folk get elected and endeavour to bring some order to this beast.

This will continue to fail unless there is a consistent majority of central and local government politicians who have capability and capacity to oversee change and ensure performance of this model.

The only constant in the management of council are long-term, well-paid bureaucrats.

Politicians come and go. Incompetence or worse can be buried in the size of the business.

But what of the poor old Auckland ratepayers who drive to work each day in the belief that someone up there in that new multi-million-dollar council building knows what they are doing with all our money.

However, here's the rub: an authority, that is legally tasked and charged with looking after building standards, buys its headquarters, takes occupation of it and then finds out that it has to spend another $31m fixing a property that was sold to politicians as a cost-efficient bargain.

Are we talking about Auckland City or Mexico City here?

At one end of the spectrum is this $31 million horrendous error. At the other end a council inspector argues an international exit sign in green and white is unacceptable because it was not gender neutral - it looked like a man. When asked "how do we comply with the Auckland Council?", the answer was "use the word exit".

The same inspector required a 13mm step and ramp to be added because he considered the lip leading into the rear exit was 13mm too high.

I have personally witnessed issues inspectors had that brought building sites to standstills. Concrete trucks were stopped from pouring, so subcontractors had to be stood down, while the council inspector went back through myriad council committees for clarification. That added expense and downtime to the poor old builder who saw his profit margin and the planned family holiday go south.

But these things matter. These things count. Where is the public service ethic of these taxpayer and ratepayer-funded employees? Just because they have no skin in the game, does not mean they can take everybody else's.

Oh, and guess who was responsible for the $31m council repair building job?

That's right: Mr No One.

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