A four-month process of consultation begins this week to discuss how Wellington can cut its spending over the next ten years. A residents’ panel is to have the first of four meetings from which it will offer “input” and then “feedback” to the city council about the next Long Term Council Community Plan. But there’s one big project listed for consultation which may show there’s a limit to the process – because the council has already made up its mind.
Cover art from the Council’s Planning For The Future Introduction
Sixty Wellington residents volunteered for 15 of the positions on the panel. They represent one third of the membership, as the council head-hunted another 32 panelists, promising a balance of gender, age, geography and interests.
Panel members are required “to listen with respectful curiosity” to the views and perspectives of others. “Be open to changing your mind,” advises the council.
Its view of the main issues can be found on its website, where eleven brief and simple documents contain “ideas for discussion” about its activities and expenditure.
The three-page introduction has a cover with a drawing of “vibrant, internationally competitive and affordable” Wellington, in which the mayor holds an orange arrow pointing at a city which includes the stadium, Te Papa, Downstage, the Central Library, the Beehive, a yellow bus, three windmills, the Carillon and (am I right?) the sewage treatment plant.
The introduction says that times are tough though Wellington is well positioned for coping with the recession. “However the costs of running the city are increasing faster than inflation, so we need to trim council spending to keep rates rises to a minimum … Instead of slashing spending on all the vibrant aspects of the city, we want to strategically trim spending.” The panelists picked by the council will be asked “where we should trim.”
The introduction is followed by three more general documents.
The deliberations page has a drawing of a council table from which pages of planning are blowing in the wind; there are also brief paragraphs describing seven ways that decisions are taken.
The spending page (more correctly, it’s only half a page) contains three key facts and repeats the need to trim some services. It doesn’t have an illustration.
The third document, titled “spend on activities,” features a cheerful diagram showing seven areas where the council spends money – the biggest are environment at 36 per cent (including wastewater, stormwater, water, gardens and beaches) and social and recreational (which includes sports grounds, housing and libraries) at 26 per cent.
Then come seven one-page papers on the seven “council activity areas”.
The social well-being page says the council believes “it is important to our quality of life that residents are able to engage in sport, recreation and community activities.”
After asking if some social and recreational services could be deferred or reduced, the council states on this page that it wants to proceed with the Indoor Community Sports Centre in Kilbirnie.
This is more than just an item on a wish-list. “Work on the Centre has commenced,” says the document, pre-empting the possibility of alternative opinions from the panel, and failing to mention the cost (last quoted at $46million) which is surely relevant for a process which is aiming to save money.
The reality of consultation on this big item of expenditure seems questionable. Though the sports centre is listed for the residents to consider, the council announced on January 17 that “construction is anticipated to begin in April.”
That’s a couple of months before the panel has its final meeting.
In the announcement that the sports centre has received resource consent, the mayor says the approval is “a commonsense decision and we will now be able to take the next steps in this important project.” She says the project will help Wellington’s construction industry.
The council was already confident about the project in November, when its project manager stated that preparations were “well underway” to begin construction once resource consent was approved. “The detailed design work is almost complete and, if all goes well, we’ll have finished the tendering process and have contractors in place by February,” he said in a council newsletter.
With such clear statements of the council’s intentions, it is hard to conceive how input or feedback giving a different viewpoint could have any effect. Perhaps the council is confident that a majority of the 47 residents will agree. Or could it be open to changing its mind, in the same way that it has advised its panel members?
As a majority of councilors support the sports centre – “it will be a brilliant facility for the whole community,” says Cr Morrison – a change of heart seems unlikely, regardless of any new ideas from the consultation process.
So if the council intends to spend $46million on indoor sports, how does it envisage saving money in the area of social and recreational services? It has two suggestions:
“Reduce the nights the central library is open and not offer evening hours for branch libraries …
“Slow down the upgrade programme for recreation facilities, public toilets and pavilions “:
Indicating perhaps that the 47 residents will need to come up with more innovative suggestions to cut spending.
The council makes equally modest suggestions for savings in its six other “activity area” discussion documents:
• Environmental wellbeing: reducing the demand for water and spending less on maintaining gardens and beaches;
• Transport: taking longer with some road and street projects so the costs are spread over more years;
• Economic wellbeing: reducing spending on one of the council’s several websites (but continuing to support the rugby world cup);
• Urban development – saving $3.8m over ten years by taking longer to upgrade public spaces, and saving $329,000 over three years by abolishing grants to help restore heritage buildings;
• Governance – the council thinks it could cut its catering budgets and could reduce the printed quality of some of its publications (my “mixed messages” article of December 22 identified extravagance in some of these);
• Cultural wellbeing – charging out-of-towners a fee for the city’s galleries and museums, cutting back deposits at the City Archives, reducing spending on public art.
All of which leaves ratepayers applauding the words that “the city’s budget is limited”, but waiting to discover whether consultation will play a real part in helping the council to “look again at what we are doing” and to “keep rates rises to a minimum.”
Lindsay Shelton is the editor of Scoop Media’s Wellington news blog WELLINGTON.scoop.co.nz