49 – Rate capping. Four workarounds we can expect to see.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          320 words

illusion

Image from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu

All the talk about rate capping and the impact on local government services has started me thinking about what happens every time there are legislated changes to the way councils operate. We find workarounds. Rather than putting our efforts into being better at providing the services that communities expect, we put our energy into workarounds to protect the status quo.

Workaround number 1. Service lives for assets will be pushed out unrealistically to reduce the annual depreciation cost. Instead of depreciating assets over 50 years they will be depreciated over 100 years, effectively halving the depreciation cost.

Workaround number 2. Staff numbers will be cut to make budget and agency staff and consultancy costs will rise significantly. A lower cost but permanent part of the workforce will be replaced with a much more expensive but temporary workforce. The over expenditure will be offset by workaround number 1.

Workaround number 3. Asset sales will be included in the budget. This will usually be land determined to be surplus to requirements (probably used as open space at the moment) or the vehicle fleet (which will then be leased). It is unlikely that the land will actually be sold and this will be explained in notes to the annual report as an unforseen problem. Never mind, put them in again next year. I worked at a council that successfully did this for a decade. Selling assets like the fleet will probably realise a loss but provide some short term cash while increasing long term costs.

Workaround number 4. CEO and Executive salaries will be frozen. No Consumer Price Index or ‘performance’ increases. This sounds fine and could be an example of leadership from the front to control wage increases across the organisation.  But keep an eye on their contract renewals. Typically this is where top management makes up for any lack of annual increase and the details are usually confidential.  No increases for several years and then a big increase on rehiring.

47 – Core services in local government. What are they?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              560 words

In an earlier post I discussed local government services and how they can be defined. This post discusses the concept of ‘core’ services delivered by councils, particularly in relation to the potential impact of rate capping (see here, here, here and here). Councils will be looking to reduce the rate of growth in expenditure and many will have to reduce current levels of expenditure. It will not be possible to maintain delivery of all services at current service levels. The starting point is likely to be a discussion about what makes a service a ‘core’ service.

A working definition of a core service is anything the council does that it is compelled to do under legislation. For example, hold elections and form a council, make and enforce local laws, provide a town planning service, control building development, inspect food premises, ensure there is a road to every property. Councils have no choice but to provide these services. Councils also have to prepare some statutory plans, for example the Public Health Plan. The State government has passed legislation to ensure that they do. The council is an authority.

The next category of ‘core’ service are the universal services provided to all citizens. Continue reading

46 – Labor’s rate cap to hurt services and infrastructure, ratings agency warns’. The Age, 27 February 2015.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                         900 words

 slices of cake
Image from http://www.that-is-good-crap.com

This article follows an earlier piece in The Age,  ‘Plan to cap council rates at inflation could lead to service cuts and job losses in Victoria’ on 23 February 2015. Both articles are about the planned legislation in Victoria to restrict councils to rate increases at or below the Consumer Price Index from 2016 unless they seek an exemption from the Essential Service Commission. Some councils have already started to cut jobs to reduce expenditure ahead of rate capping. Others are forecasting cuts to their services and reduced maintenance or renewal of community infrastructure.

This is occurring at the same time that the State government is shifting more costs onto councils and national grants to councils are being frozen. I have previously posted on rate capping (see here , here and here). As you can imagine, rate capping is dominating talk within local government circles. Continue reading

29 – Local government shared services. Is it the silver bullet for rate capping? – Part 2

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         950 words

In the previous post, I discussed economies of scale and the cost savings possible through shared services. This post continues the discussion, starting with the implications of front and back office separation.

The history of ‘back office’ and ‘front office’ separation is worth some discussion. According to Seddon, it began with an article by Richard Chase in the Harvard Business Review in 1978. In the article, Chase recommends separating the ‘high customer contact’ and ‘low customer contact’ elements of the service system because of the different operations involved. Low customer contact operations are more efficient and, as a result, have lower costs and it makes sense to isolate them from the disruptive effects of customer interactions if it can be done without sacrificing service effectiveness. However, service effectiveness is exactly what Seddon believes has been lost in many of the cases he cites. Continue reading

16 – ‘Council rates capped from mid-2016’, The Age, 21 January 2015

‘Council rates will be capped next year with the state government forcing councils to justify any increases above the rate of inflation. Councils must now send their budgets to the Essential Services Commission for permission to raise rates above inflation. Inflation – as measured through the consumer price index [CPI] – is currently running at 2.3 per cent. Last financial year rates increased by an average of 4.23 per cent.’

Some people will be thinking it is about time that municipal rate rises are curbed. Nobody likes paying more taxes. But is it a smart move?

Rate capping has been in place in NSW for more than 30 years. In 2013 the NSW Treasury Corporation reported that a quarter of the state’s 152 councils had a ”weak” or ”very weak” financial sustainability rating. If not corrected, half would be ”very weak” financially within three years. In 2014 the number of councils requesting rate increases above the 2.3% cap set by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal almost doubled. The requested increases ranged from 5.5% to 11%. The increases reflect the financial realities confronting local government and ‘catch up’ increases to cover lack of revenue

NSW councils have responded to the rate capping in different ways. Ryde Council has created an RSA-type animation that neatly explains to residents the choices that need to be made.  It illustrates the implications of the demands for growth in services and infrastructure when revenue is declining.  New works are less possible and maintenance and cleaning standards have to be reduced with long term impacts on infrastructure.  Ryde is having to define ‘core’ services, i.e. what is essential versus what is nice to have, and balance reducing service levels with increasing rates.  It is a simple and effectively told story (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iR_BJKAo0dA).

The overall effect of rate capping seems to have been a reduced ability to provide services to the community, accumulated backlogs in infrastructure renewal or replacement, and increased reliance user charges for revenue. According to Brian Dollery and Albert Wijeweera the increase in rates in NSW since 1995 has been about half the increase that has occurred in Victoria and council rates per capita are lower that every other state and only higher that the Northern Territory.

Councils in Victoria experienced enforced rate cuts and capping for a period of time in the 1990’s. The Kennett Liberal/National coalition government capped rates in 1995 and imposed a cap of one percentage point below inflation. The cap was lifted in 1997 to allow increases of up to 3 per cent – with Ministerial approval. In 1999 the Bracks Labor government scrapped the cap altogether. The councils unable to draw on financial reserves or liquidate assets were profoundly affected and the impacts, similar to those now evident in NSW, were enduring.

The arguments in favour of rate capping are worth some discussion. They revolve around preventing councils from abusing monopoly powers in delivery of services; stopping expenditure on services or infrastructure that the State government regards as ‘non-core’; reducing the risks of poor governance; and limiting the ability of councils to provide services that are better provided by the private sector. Essentially, it reflects a lack of trust by the State government – councils won’t make sensible decisions without supervision.

In practical terms, what is it likely to mean for Victorian councils from day to day?

For a start, some councils are talking about entering into shared services to reduce costs. This has been a popular idea with CEO’s for a while that has failed to take effect. But will shared services really help? The evidence suggests that the savings are seldom as great as people think and there are initial costs involved in making those savings. John Seddon writes eloquently on the shortcomings of shared services. More in a future post.

What else can councils do? Reducing expenditure on capital works to enable funds to be used for recurrent operational expenditure is one likely response. In the short term this is fine if there are not pressing asset renewal demands or community demands for new assets. Cutting back expenditure on new assets will be easier for developed municipalities. It will not be as easy for developing municipalities where population growth is creating demand for new assets to meet community needs. In all municipalities, reduced expenditure on asset renewal will ultimately result in reduced fitness for purpose and increased future costs.

What about cutting recurrent operational expenditure? This is much more difficult because the community is likely to immediately lose services. There will be opposition from those who no longer receive the benefits of a service that is cut. The typical council operational budget is about 60-70% salaries and wages, 10-30% contractors and materials, and 5-10% plant and equipment. There will need to be a reduction in staff numbers for the cuts to be meaningful. This is likely to result in industrial disputes. If staff numbers are not reduced, there will need to be big cuts to expenditure on contractors and materials and/or plant and equipment, which impacts directly on the ability of staff to be productive.

Reducing expenditure on contractors is probably the easiest cut to make, especially if it doesn’t directly impact on delivery of services to the community. For many councils, this type of cut will impact on major maintenance/minor renewal of assets, which often sits outside the capital budget because the amount is below the threshold for capitalisation or the works do not increase asset life and cannot be capitalised. In the 1990’s it was cuts to this type that had long-term impacts when assets failed and needed premature renewal because of inadequate maintenance.

Rate capping has been shown to reduce the ability for councils to respond to community demand for services and to adequately care for physical infrastructure. It takes away the potential for local communities to determine the amount of funding they want to provide for council activities. It might drive administrative efficiencies, but at what cost? More than anything, it says that the State government knows more about meeting local needs. In every respect, it is just wrong.

Colin Weatherby

Dollery, Brian and Wijeweera, Albert 2010. An assessment of rate-pegging in New South Wales local government, in Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance, Issue 6: July (http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/cjlg/article/view/1619)

Seddon, John 2014. The Whitehall Effect.

The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/council-rates-capped-from-mid2016-20150120-12tz7k.html