Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mike Butler: De-amalgamation is difficult

Ratepayers in Auckland, Queensland, and Canada have a message for Hawke’s Bay people facing a decision in two weeks on replacing our five councils – it is really difficult to de-amalgamate.

A poll suggesting most people in northern Rodney, north of Auckland, want to break away from the Auckland Council the latest in a list of communities that want out of a costly and disappointing amalgamation experience.

A recent poll of North Rodney by the Northern Action Group Inc showed 94 per cent favoured breaking from Auckland and setting up a separate council.

A new Warkworth-based council would stretch from Puhoi, which is 44km north of Auckland, to just north of Te Hana, 82km from Auckland.

Action group chairman Bill Townson says the 22,000 people of North Rodney have felt for several years the Auckland Council is not adequately representing their interests.

The new North Rodney Council would have five councillors representing five wards plus a mayor. The council would levy its own rates (calculated at 10 to 15 per cent lower than current levels) Currently the area gets back less than half the rates it contributes to Auckland.

Rodney is not the only area working on leaving the super city. Waiheke Island, with a resident population of 8340, is another. A poll held in May showed that 64.8 percent were in favour of setting up their own council.

Central planners have seen super-councils as the way of the future, and New Zealand is not alone in facing amalgamations and de-amalgamations. A number of communities in both Australia and Canada have gone down this path.

In late 2004 the Local Government Association in Queensland resolved to promote amalgamation for pretty much the same reasons as our Local Government Commission.

The Queensland government established the Local Government Reform Commission in 2007, which recommended Queensland's 156 councils be reduced to 72, and that the 32 Aboriginal and Island councils to be reduced to 14. Legislative changes were pushed through in 2007 and the new councils were elected in March 2008.

These amalgamations became an issue during the 2012 Queensland state election. Applications for de-amalgamation were received from 19 communities and five applications were allowed – Douglas, Isis, Livingston, Mareeba, and Noosa.

Polls were held in each of the former shires of Douglas, Livingstone, Mareeba and Noosa in March 2013, with all in favour of de-amalgamation -- Noosa 81.4 percent support, Douglas 57.6 percent, Livingstone 56.6 percent, and Mareeba 57.9 percent.

No further de-amalgamations were permitted even though further former cities in these amalgamated areas in Queensland want to secede.

I had a phone call from a person in north Queensland who is trying to de-amalgamate Maryborough City, which is 260km north of Brisbane, from Hervey Bay, Tiaro and Woocoo. His message was simply “Don’t do it”.

The four communities were forced to amalgamate in 2008 and since then rates money from Maryborough City, Tiaro and Woocoo, has been directed to Hervey Bay in a bid to create a second Gold Coast.

Canadians went down a similar path in Toronto and Montreal, where the provincial governments were trying to merge local bodies to cut costs.

In 2006 residents of Montreal forced de-amalgamation after just four years. At a massive cost, the city de-merged into 15 municipalities.

A high-profile de-amalgamation occurred in the United States, being that of Sandy Springs, Atlanta. Sandy Springs was an unincorporated part of Fulton County, Georgia. Fulton County taxed Sandy Springs heavily but spent little money there.

The people of Sandy Springs became tired of this and wanted local control, a voice in their own government, and wanted to keep local money at home. A referendum in 2005 passed with a 92 percent vote.

Sandy Springs has gained publicity for contracting private companies to perform the majority of its services in a public-private partnership model of government, achieving impressive efficiencies.

A vote on whether a single council should replace councils in Wairoa, Napier, Hastings, and Central Hawke’s Bay will proceed from August 24, when voting papers will be mailed to all on the electoral roll. Special votes are possible for those not enrolled.

For those undecided on the benefits of a council amalgamation, if it goes ahead it would be very difficult to get out of.

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