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2021 Ratepayers’ Report released, methodology explained

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The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union has today published the 2021 edition of Ratepayers' Report – online local government league tables – at www.ratepayersreport.nz

With these league tables, New Zealanders can easily compare their local council’s performance and financial position for 2019/20 against others.

Setting out more than two thousand data points, the Ratepayers' Report provides transparency for ratepayers, and rates figures are presented on a per-household basis to ensure fair comparisons between councils. The league tables rank councils on metrics including average residential rates, staffing costs, and council liabilities among others.

Taxpayers’ Union Campaign Manager Louis Houlbrooke says, “Our annual Ratepayers' Report helps ratepayers answer the question: could you be getting a better deal from your local council? The league tables reveal huge disparities between councils in terms of how much they take in rates, how much they owe, and how much they spend on salaries. Local council staff should pay close attention to the rankings and ask themselves how they might emulate their better-performing neighbours.”

Notable Findings:

Rates are still on the rise. The average council increased its rates by $111, with the average residential rate nationwide now $2,572.

  • Rates: Carterton District Council once again ranks highest for average residential rates at $3,639, just ahead of Auckland Council at $3,599. The lowest average residential rates in New Zealand is Buller District Council ($1,815).

  • Liabilities: Christchurch City Council continues to have the highest liabilities (debt) per household compared to any other council ($30,096). Auckland Council follows in second place, with liabilities per household of $29,611. Central Otago District Council has the country's lowest liabilities per household – $527.

  • Staffing efficiency: Waitomo District Council (including its CCOs) has the highest number of staff on a per-household basis  a staff member for every 20 households. In contrast, Thames-Coromandel District Council serves 122 households for each of its staff members.

  • Salaries: Auckland Council and its CCOs pays 3,161 staff salaries greater than $100,000  an increase of 330 people from 2020. Meanwhile, Otorohanga and Rangitikei District Councils each pay just five staff salaries greater than $100,000.

  • Fiscal safeguards: Only four councils meet the full criteria for prudent Audit and Risk Committees: Dunedin, Kawerau, Marlborough and Porirua.

This year's Ratepayers' Report has been published earlier in the year than previous editions: the data is up to date as of the most recent council fiscal year – the 12 months to 30 June 2020. That means it reflects the first three months of COVID-19's arrival in New Zealand.

Editors' notes:

Data for the report was compiled by the Taxpayers' Union and was supplied to all councils for review (and any necessary correction) prior to publication.

Ratepayers' Report facilitates straightforward comparison of average residential rates via a formula first used by Napier City Council which allows for an 'apples to apples' comparison of average residential rates and charges, based on each council’s definition of a residential rating unit. Only Waikato District Council was unwilling to provide the Taxpayers' Union with either residential or non-residential rates figures.

For non-rates figures (i.e. liabilities, personnel costs) we have assessed council data against the number of households counted by Stats NZ’s latest census. We have used Stats NZ household data because councils have different definitions of what constitutes a residential ratepayer or ‘rating unit’.

Q & A

What is the purpose of Ratepayers’ Report?

Ratepayers' Report provides accountability and transparency to New Zealand ratepayers by allowing them to compare their local territorial authority with others around the country.

Where was the data sourced?

The Taxpayers' Union compiled the data in Ratepayers' Report after reviewing each council's annual report for the year ending June 30, 2020.

Other figures were obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, and cover the 2019/20 financial year.

The data was sent to each individual authority for their review and error checking prior to public launch.

Population and household data is from Stats NZ.

Where did the group finance figures come from?

They are taken from each Council's annual report. They are council figures, plus all those of subsidiary council-controlled organisations.

Which councils are assessed in Ratepayers' Report?

Of New Zealand's 67 territorial authorities, 66 are examined in Ratepayers' Report. That includes all city, district, and unitary councils, with the exclusion of the Chatham Islands Council (due to concerns surrounding that Council's workload pressure and unique position).

What about regional councils?

While we anticipate including regional councils in future editions of the Report, gathering data for these councils has proved more difficult. Our previous research suggests that regional councils charge anywhere from $42 to $553 per residential ratepayer on top of the bill charged by territorial authorities.

Is this the first Ratepayers' Report?

No. Ratepayers' Report was first published in 2014 jointly by the Taxpayers' Union and Fairfax Media (now Stuff). The Taxpayers’ Union have since published updated versions in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. This is the sixth edition.

How are the councils grouped?

Unitary authorities – the five territorial authorities which also carry out the functions of a regional authority are grouped.
Metropolitan – the five large councils with a population of over 120,000.
City – five smaller metropolitan councils with populations between 40,000 and 120,000.
Provincial – the largest group, 27 non-metropolitan councils with population over 20,000.
Rural – the remaining 23 councils.

How was the average rates calculated?

Calculating an 'apples to apples' figure for residential rates is difficult because councils use various mixes of rates, levies, and user charges. Our approach is based on work by Napier City Council to find an average residential rate. The methodology councils were asked to use to calculate the figures disclosed in Ratepayers' Report is available here.

While we think this approach is useful and fair, the average residential and non-residential rate figure should be a guide only.

Unitary authorities (Auckland Council, Nelson City Council, Gisborne, Tasman, and Marlborough District Councils) perform the functions of a regional council and therefore can be expected to have higher rates than other territorial authorities.

Were councils consulted in the process?

Yes. Every council was sent a draft version of their respective data to review. 

Can the results of the 2021 report be compared to the 2020 edition?

Yes. All non-rates figures (i.e. liabilities, staff) were assessed using council data from Stats NZ’s 2018 census figures. We have done this because councils have different definitions of what constitutes a residential ratepayer or ‘rating unit’.

The methodology means that the per-household figures can be compared with the 2019 and 2020 report, but not with the 2018 report which used a per-ratepayer figure (aside from the average rates metric which has remained consistent).

What are the potential limitations of Ratepayers’ Report?

Queenstown-Lakes, Taupo, and Thames-Coromandel District Councils have previously objected to the use of Stats NZ’s household figures, as these tend to exclude properties left empty, i.e. baches. As a result, per-household figures for these districts may be somewhat inflated. This does not affect the rates figures, which are based on rating units.

Empty or undeveloped sections are counted as rating units. This means the average residential rates figure for a territory with a high proportion of undeveloped sections, such as Wairoa District Council, may appear relatively low while the actual level of rates levied on an average Wairoa homeowner is likely to be higher.

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