The Taxpayers’ Union, in collaboration with Fairfax Media, this morning launched "Ratepayers’ Report” hosted by Stuff.co.nz.
Ratepayers’ Report builds on the work of local government expert and financial analyst, Larry Mitchell and his work in previous years comparing New Zealand’s 67 territorial authorities. The data was pulled together by the Taxpayers' Union and supplied to Fairfax Media. Fairfax has had the data checked independently and supplied it to councils for viewing before its publication.
For the first time, New Zealanders now have an interactive online tool to compare their local council to those of the rest of the country. Go to Ratepayersreport.co.nz to compare your local council including average rates, debt per ratepayer and even CEO salaries.
Ratepayers’ Report compares, for the first time, average residential rates. The figure has been calculated using a methodology developed within the local government sector to compare average residential rates. Only Kaipara District Council was unwilling to provide the Taxpayers’ Union with the average residential rates information.
We now have more details of the deal uncovered by the Taxpayers’ Union over the weekend between Dunedin’s Mayor Dave Cull and former MP, Pete Hodgson, which the Mayor described in the media as a “gentleman’s agreement”.
This morning’s Christchurch Press editorial analyses the deal:
Editorial: Gentlemen sign contracts too
There is no reason to believe that Cull and Hodgson are anything other than honest gentlemen, but the geographic accident that also gives them "southern man" status should not put them above the usual requirements by which local government business is conducted.
The standards that apply to council administration in the south should be no less rigorous than in Auckland city or the Whangarei district. Why should ratepayers in Dunedin tolerate a more easy-going attitude towards the spending of their money than anywhere else, just because of a romantic notion that southerners are somehow more honourable? Actually, they aren't.
Mr Hodgson has provided emails from him to the Council from August 2013, relating to 40 hours of “consulting” equalling $3,200 of the $3,400 total we questioned.
It appears the Council was wrong to tell us that no documentation or invoice was available.
Producing an invoice under public pressure is only one aspect of the matter settled. It raises a whole lot more questions:
This morning the Taxpayers’ Union went public with material concerning a payment (or payments) totalling $3,400 by the Dunedin City Council to former MP Pete Hogdson with no documentation or contract.
We're questioning the internal controls at the Council after the uncovering the payment following a recent media report that Mr Hodgson had been recruited by the Council for lobbying. We asked for information about the services being provided by Mr Hodgson under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. Click "continue reading" below to view the Council's response.
The Council has told us that:
We asked for copies of any work by Mr Hodgson. All we got back was two letters by the mayor on which Mr Hodgson apparently had input. It is not clear what precisely that was. For example, there is no 'tracked changes" document.
We think Dunedin ratepayers will be alarmed that their Council paid $3,400 without so much as an invoice. We plan to write to the Mayor to to ask:
The Council’s response raises serious questions. We can't think of another government agency that would spend $3,400 without being able to provide as much as an invoice.
Without an explanation from the Council, we are left wondering whether the Auditor-General should get involved."
As widely covered by media over the weekend, the EY report into suspected misuse of Auckland Council resources by Len Brown is deeply concerning. In addition to the undeclared freebies (including undeclared gifts from Skycity - at the same time as publicly championing the convention centre deal) the report fails to deal with the concerns raised by the Taxpayers' Union in relation to the Mayor's trip to China in January 2013. We still don't know for example:
Today we called on Mr Brown to pay back the money for both his personal expenses and undeclared gift listed in the EY report. Without the offer to pay the money back, we think the apology made by Mr Brown today to ratepayers is meaningless.
Click continue reading for our media release.
Yesterday the Taxpayers’ Union announced the winner of its competition for the Aucklander with the highest percentage increase in rates and user-charges.
The winner is Mrs Glenys Smith of Howick, whose rates have more than doubled since 2003.
Mrs Smith is a classic example of an Auckland householder paying more but getting less. In 2003 Mrs Smith’s rates were $1,371 in 2003. They are now more than double, up to nearly $3,100 for 2013/2014.
Mrs Smith also pointed out in her entry that, “When the wastewater charges were taken off the rates, the rates didn’t go down to compensate!”
Mrs Smith wins a KraftMaster petrol lawnmower (perfect for mowing the berms).
The other winner is Mr Colin Shearer of Sunnyhills. Though Mr Shearer didn’t provide the required user charge details to qualify for the lawnmower, his un-capped rates increase was the highest we received. As a discretionary prize, the Taxpayers’ Union is giving Mr Shearer a weed-wacker.
Mr Shearer’s uncapped rates increase is 34.2 per cent, from the 2011/2012 base year. That means that his rates will be over a third higher, in less than four years.
While Len Brown is hiding behind the ‘average’ figure of 2.5 per cent, this is merely an attempt to disguise just how much extra some Auckland households are paying. As the entries show, many Aucklanders are paying much more, while the Council is reducing services such as berm mowing.
The report of the Auditor-General’s inquiry into the EcoCare wastewater project was released on Tuesday. It revealed serious failures in the management of the project, and strongly criticises Audit NZ. Inaccurate record keeping, mismanagement of the project, lack of financial advice and expertise, and reliance on private partnerships saw a huge budget blowout, with costs exceeding over $63m. For example, the effluent disposal bill alone increased from $361,000 to $14m.
How did the Council pay for this budget blowout? By raising rates for Mangawhai residents. The annual cost to ratepayers was a consideration in assessing the affordability of the project. However, the summary of the report reveals that the Council in fact decided to “increase the number of estimated ratepayers that would be covered by the scheme and contribute to funding it”. This is a fundamental flaw, and the Auditor-General concluded that this decision was not based on an adequate account of predicted growth in the area. This, as well as the undisclosed liabilities are precisely the things Audit NZ should have picked up on.
The Auditor-General's office (which includes Audit NZ) is supposed to provide assurance that government departments are performing as they should. The report details that:
Joel Cayford has written a blog post evaluating the report. He’s gone a step further than the Taxpayers’ Union, and believes that an unreserved apology does not cut it, concluding that the Auditor-General's 'head is on the block'.
Many audit failures internationally have led to large payouts by audit companies and their insurers to shareholders. Here, the tab was left with Kaipara ratepayers. The report does not address what we think the issue is: redress for the Kaipara ratepayers who paid the bill.