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Priorities, and spending

by Ray Chung
Who’s concerned about possible rates increases of around 23% that were being discussed at a Wellington City Council workshop in November? Yes, I know that our water pipes need repairing, and the LGWM proposal hasn’t been moving. But it appears that the council doesn’t want to talk about this anymore.

Is there a Plan B for addressing Wellington’s traffic issues? Is the council putting pressure on central government to help finance infrastructure projects? The council has increased its borrowing by $172 million, but where’s this money going?

Why is this council not considering the priorities for Wellington and what we can afford? The list of existing projects is already so long and includes the Conference Centre, the Central Library, strengthening the Town Hall and the St James Theatre, and bicycle paths including the Cobham Drive one that seems to be taking forever. With so many large and expensive projects, why is the council still acting as if it’s business as usual with some councillors looking for new ways of spending money as if they’ve discovered a money tree?

Councillors voted to strengthen the Central Library even though 42% of submissions voted to demolish and rebuild vs. 31% to strengthen the building. I wrote a submission suggesting that the council consider selling the land to a private developer on the proviso that the lower floors were leased back in perpetuity for the new library. The developer could have then developed the remainder of the building for mixed use with a combination of apartments and commercial offices. This would have saved the council from getting involved with a building project estimated to cost between $161.7m-$178.7m – when, based on recent experience of the Town Hall and the St. James, there’s a propensity to run over budget.

This option would have had the added benefit of not requiring any capital expense and would have been funded from cash flow in addition to attracting rates from the rest of the new building.

Then we have Jill Day proposing to pay iwi members to attend council sub-committee meetings when they’ve had an open invitation to attend these meetings for 12 years but have only attended one, when Shelly Bay was discussed. Not to be outdone, Rebecca Matthews and Tamatha Paul, neither of whom are ratepayers, propose setting up a rainbow advisory focus group paid by ratepayers to become involved in council decision-making. This proposal, supported by Jill Day and Fleur Fitzsimons, aims to get earlier involvement in council processes to influence and shape what happens. Day states that homelessness for transgenders is a concern, as are gender-neutral public toilets and changing rooms. Yet it seems to me that every public toilet I’ve seen in Wellington has a logo of a man, woman and child on the doors. Aren’t they open to everyone and isn’t that the meaning of the word “public?” Doesn’t homelessness affect many people, so why has this issue been made specific to one group?

Sure, I acknowledge that these projects are small compared to the huge council budget, as one councillor is fond of telling me. But councillors should be looking at ways of economising, not embarking on a spending spree.

The NZ Herald reports that there are 70,000 more people struggling to make ends meet in 2020 and many of these are retirees on fixed superannuation/income who could be forced to sell their homes if they can’t pay the annual rates increases. Notably, in the 2018 Nielsen Quality of Life survey, only 46% of people said they had enough money to meet their everyday needs.

I recall some years ago that Rodney Hide, when he was minister for Local Government, was tasked with analysing why local Council rates were increasing at far greater rates than inflation, and he worked on capping these increases to inflation. Unfortunately, this was never completed. It’s time to raise this again with central government, together with a discussion on compensation for all the regulatory responsibility that central government is imposing such as enforcing the SNA debacle (Significant Natural Area) where councils are trying to re-designate private property without compensation to property owners.

The WCC budget continues to increase with civil servants’ salaries increasing 13% in 2020. In a recent report on Stuff, WCC staff said they had $50 million in a jam jar earmarked for the installation of water meters. How many other jam jars does the council have, to be used on undisclosed and unapproved projects? They should be identified and released so these funds can be used on priority projects and not individual councillors’ vanity projects.

What incentive is there for the WCC to increase efficiency and watch their spending? It seems to me that whatever the council or councillors want to spend money on just gets added to the budgets with an attitude that these costs will just get lumped on to the rates.

The council needs to do what people who are unable to meet their everyday needs do – that is, take a serious look at cutting the “nice to haves” and avoid borrowing simply because interest rates are low. All this new borrowing will saddle current and future generations with repaying this debt. At the very least, the council should implement a staff ceiling level and salary freeze.

There’s currently consultation on “Planning for Growth” and the Draft Spatial Plan, but we need to have accurate projections in the 30-year plan on what these will cost. The forecast 50,000-80,000 population increase touted by the council has been challenged as inaccurate and will be lower with reduced immigration and changed employment prospects, but whatever the figure is, we should embrace it as an opportunity to increase productivity in Wellington.

The biggest problem with the city council is that most, not all of them, are ill-prepared in experience or training to be effective councillors, so they fall back to making decisions on ideology. Councillors are equivalent to company board directors. To be effective, they need to have business experience, not just ideals. Councillors would be more effective if they had experience of Business Plans, Balance Sheets, ROI (Return on Investment) and basic accounting.

Ray Chung is vice-president of the Onslow Residents and Community Association.

NZ Herald: Growing dissatisfaction with city council decision-making [1]