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A Ratepayers’ Bill of Rights

The Newman Letter

A Ratepayers’ Bill of Rights

Last week I was elected onto my local ratepayer association committee. I’m pleased that I will now have an opportunity to examine the growing problems facing local government on a first hand basis.

Since Labour changed the Local Government Act in 2002, in many districts rates are escalating, user charges for core services are becoming an everyday occurrence, council debt levels are mounting, bureaucratic inefficiency and consent delays are commonplace, and there is growing unease over the ever-increasing powers being given to Maori.

Many would argue that the key role of local government is to provide essential infrastructural services to ratepayers - road maintenance, rubbish collection, reserve upkeep, the provision of water and other utilities - as well as to process regulatory responsibilities including the issuing and monitoring of consents.

However, the 2002 law dramatically changed the purpose of local government to firstly “enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of communities”, and secondly, to “promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities, in the present and for the future”.

Labour also enshrined special rights for Maori by including in the Act: “a local authority should provide opportunities for Maori to contribute to the decision-making processes”. This requires councils to single Maori out for special treatment, yet there are a myriad of other groups within a district - small business, farmers, those with disabilities, young people, pensioners - that have equal or greater needs.

The problem is that if one particular group is given special status in law, it leads to the establishment of privileges that are not available to other ratepayers. For example, many councils have now appointed Maori liaison officers, leading to an over-representation and creating a lucrative ratepayer funded gravy train as well as a powerful right of veto.

This result is extremely ironic considering that many Maori do not even pay rates! In fact in some districts more than half of the owners of Maori land – including, unbelievably, people of high standing within their community such as Councilors and Members of Parliament – refuse to pay their rates.

The reason is that councils have been excluded by law from being able to sell Maori land for compensation purposes leaving them with no power to enforce rates collection. This means that some local bodies are chronically under funded, a situation that is made much worse if their districts contain large tracts of Department of Conservation land, which is deemed to be exempt from rates demands.

I believe these situations are unacceptable – rates should be charged on all land within a district with no exemptions.

In some districts, Maori have also been given excessive powers over consent applications, exacerbating a problem that was originally caused by the National Government when they introduced Iwi consultation into the Resource Management Act. That provision has led to a corrupt system of legalised blackmail, whereby Maori – along with their so-called taniwhas and wahi tapu - are charging tens of thousands of dollars in return for agreeing to not hold up progress.

The second purpose of local government, the promotion of the four well-beings, has essentially given local authorities sweeping new powers of general competence. Their scope has been widened so far from core services that they can now embark on almost any project that the politicians or staff fancy. From the provision of Rolls Royce social services that were traditionally the responsibility of central government, to the operation of risky commercial ventures - underwritten by ratepayers and in competition with the private sector – the sky is now their limit.

This means that the checks and balances that ratepayers had on their local authorities through their traditional restricted range of activities, has now been removed. It is therefore more important than ever before that the real objectives of local body politicians are clearly understood: if sports-mad councilors want a new ratepayer funded stadium, or their conservation-minded colleagues want to recycle rubbish (even if it costs more and results in sorted rubbish ending up in a landfill), or the arts lovers want new galleries, then these pet projects are now more likely to get a green light, leaving ratepayers to shoulder the increasing rates burden.

Central government also adds significantly to that burden as they push more and more responsibilities onto local authorities: there are costly new dog control laws to be administered, prostitutes to look out for, and expensive new water quality standards in the pipeline. Further, councils are busy drafting policies for trees, for cats, for the elderly – you name it, and it’s likely to be on the drawing board!

With local government now on the brink of a bureaucratic and cost explosion, I wonder if the time is now ripe to consider a concept that has been suggested to me, a Ratepayers Bill of Rights, aimed at protecting ratepayers from exploitation by central planners and socialists!

A Ratepayers Bill of Rights would restrict the purpose of councils back to the provision of core services and regulatory responsibilities. It would introduce a rates cap based on the rate of inflation and a population growth adjustment and binding ratepayers’ referenda (send out with rates bills) for major council projects. It would also abolish special privileges for Maori or for any other group for that matter, ensuring DOC and every other landowner had to pay rates, and it would replace the RMA to ensure that private property rights are properly protected. Finally it would require an increased investment into roading by requiring that all petrol tax money and road user charges collected by central government is allocated back into roading.

If you believe a Ratepayer Bill of Rights is an idea that has merit, and if you have some suggestions, please email me on muriel@newman.co.nz with “suggestions” in the subject line, and pass this letter on to others who may want to make a contribution.

ENDS

The Newman Letter is a weekly article from Dr Muriel Newman of the New Zealand Centre for Political Debate, a web-based forum at www.MurielNewman.co.nz for the lively and dynamic exchange of political ideas.

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