CITY of Newcastle's decision to wipe more than $100 million from its liabilities by changing the definition of when roads, footpaths and drains need repairing or replacing is the sort of thing that naturally invites a closer look.
The council's critics will tend to see it as a boondoggle, especially as the organisation cited an urgent need to tackle a mounting infrastructure backlog when it convinced the regulator to allow it to lift rates by 8 per cent a year from 2015 until this year.
The cumulative increase was 46.9 per cent, compared with 15.2 per per cent under rate-capping.
On the other hand, the backlog changes might be part of a pragmatic and legitimate move to help the organisation batten down the hatches by reducing spending at a time when the longer term consequences of COVID remain uncertain.
As we saw this week, the amalgamated Central Coast Council has called for a $6.2 million bailout to help it meet short-term cost commitments.
So if deferring infrastructure spending - which is effectively what Newcastle has said it is doing - helps "future proof" the council, then it might not be such a bad thing.
The problem is, however, that Newcastle council has developed such a reputation for secrecy that trust in its statements, and its intentions, is less than it should be.
What the council doesn't appear to realise is that the more it digs itself into a corner - forgetting, it seems, that it exists to serve the public - the more it looks as though it has significant shortcomings to hide.
This week's media statement on the backlog said it was changing its reporting standards "in line with best practice".
But as various hospitals and health departments have found over the years, tinkering with the definitions in surgical waiting lists might make them look shorter for a while, but they are soon enough caught out.
What's more, the "best practice" claim flies in the face of the relevant code from the Office of Local Government.
That's unless the City of Newcastle is also redefining "consultation" - recommended by the OLG before any such changes - to mean presenting the public with a fait accompli.
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