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Wairarapa ratepayers walk out of council meeting in protest at rates hikes

Report from LDR
Dozens of ratepayers walked out of a South Wairarapa District Council meeting in Martinborough today after being denied a chance to discuss their large rate rises during an explosive meeting that was almost halted by the mayor.

Mayor Alex Beijen threatened to close the meeting after dozens in the public gallery heckled the decision not to add the rates rise as an extraordinary item.

Speakers cited a lack of trust after verbal submissions pointed at rates rises more than triple the 14.28 per cent the council published previously.

In scenes more reminiscent of a courtroom drama than a rural council, Beijen brought the gavel down loudly a number of times in response to heckling from the gallery.

It was standing room only at the meeting as more than 60 agitated ratepayers fronted up to support submitters demanding answers about massive rates hikes.

SWDC’s long term plan, voted in last month, ushered in a wide-ranging work programme for the next decade. To fund the first year, it sought to collect a total of $24.5 million in rates, more than 25 per cent higher than the previous year.

As bills landed in letterboxes and email inboxes, many ratepayers found their payments much higher than the 14.28 per cent figure for average urban residential rates SWDC had published online and in press statements.

Shocked gasps, shouting from the public gallery and a mass walkout followed SWDC mayor Alex Beijen’s announcement there would be no public debate following the submissions.

Beijen brought the gavel down loudly a number of times and said unless council rules were followed, people would have to leave. “I will have to ask you to leave the building,” he said.

“Ask us to leave then,” someone heckled.

After this, most in the public gallery got up and walked out.

The audience included several elected representatives, including members of the Featherston and Martinborough community board.

Martinborough ratepayer Daphne Geisler handed out her figures, stating a 28 per cent increase in revenue collected. “The final rates agreed by you all were very different from the rates you proposed in the consultation,” Geisler said. “Your behaviour serves to diminish my trust in council and reinforces my lack of confidence in your abilities as our elected representatives.

“Why didn’t just one of you around the table on 30 June say ‘whoa’ we’ve just approved 28 per cent increase and we’re going to tell people 14.28 per cent. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Actuary John Errington agreed the total rate take was up 28 per cent. “In my view as an actuary, the use of [the council’s] example can be best described as misleading or deceptive or hiding behind actual property increase values.”

Former councillor Lee Carter said the SWDC process was inadequate and lacked transparency. “Many people are scared, frightened and angry. Is this how you want our people to live?” she asked. “Carry on this way and you won’t only have failing infrastructure, you will also have failing communities.”

She said SWDC had “failed the people you are here to represent” through with “poor decision making and lack of credible communication and information”.

Carter called for a public meeting so concerns could be addressed openly.

“Public meetings in all three towns [Featherston, Greytown, and Martinborough ]would be helpful for people to come to terms with the shock of their recent rates rise. Your decisions have had serious impacts on many people especially the elderly and pensioners.

“The main message from people is they don’t get enough notice on how much their rates were going to increase. We are not just talking one, two or three hundred dollars, but six, seven, eight and even twelve hundred dollars annual increase,” she said.

Warren Woodgyer said his rates had gone up by 21 per cent.

“It’s obvious from the public outcry the advertised rate increase of 14.5 per cent was well off the mark. I along with many other ratepayers am angry and disillusioned.”

Following the mid-meeting walkout, council members discussed how best to respond.

After the meeting Beijen said SWDC appreciated community members taking the opportunity to express their concerns at the meeting about the rates rises. He said formal protocols restricted councillors’ ability to respond to the public submitters.

“Council meetings are a ‘meeting in public’, and not a ‘public meeting’. Therefore, it is a place for council to hear your concerns.”

Beijen said matters raised at the meeting, including a possible public meeting, were under consideration as a priority. “We are committed to providing a full response to address community concerns.”

The SWDC website has information explaining rating calculations.