Hundreds of hands went up when the audience was asked if they thought rates were too high. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

High rural rates among thorny topics

GIANINA SCHWANECKE
gianina.schwanecke@age.co.nz

More than 350 disgruntled Carterton ratepayers packed into the Carterton Events Centre to hear from councillors about rises in rates.

The event was organised by Rates Resistance Carterton, which includes former Carterton district councillor Tracey O’Callaghan, who resigned from council in March, as a member.

Many people at the meeting wanted to know why rates in Carterton district had increased and how much they would go up in the future.

Councillors Brian Deller, Jill Greathead, Greg Lang, Rebecca Vergunst and Mike Ashby attended, with apologies offered by Mayor John Booth and Cr Ruth Carter.

All who attended are standing for council again bar Mike Ashby who said he had found this last term “quite stressful”.

Questions were drawn randomly from a hat by facilitator and Featherston resident John Boon. Some had been given to councillors beforehand so they could prepare answers while others were submitted on Tuesday night.

One asked why rates were higher for rural residents than urban.

Lang answered that rural rates contributed to other community costs in the urban centres which rural ratepayers could enjoy.

“When you leave your house and drive on the road, and park the car and walk on the footpath, walk by the gardens, use the public toilets, watch sports games, drink water … that all comes from rates,” he said.

Vergunst disputed claims that Carterton had the highest rural rates in the country according to figures from the Taxpayer Union.

“I’d like to see what makes up the Taxpayer Union figures. There’s no standard for rates.

“A dollar figure per ratepayer doesn’t sum up what’s going on in the district.”

She said it didn’t account for spending on projects, such as the wastewater treatment plant and proposed dog pound, required under new legislative standards set by central government.

Audience members booed at the mention of such projects.

“Other councils on that list might not have got to that stage and may face rates increases later,” she said.

Carterton had a rates increase of 9.5 per cent last year. The higher-than-expected final figure was attributed to a move to in-house auditing and unexpected issues with budget calculations.

The big-ticket items covered by the rates included work starting on the wastewater treatment plant and a three-year project to increase drinking water storage.

This year, the council adopted an average-rates increase of 4.2 per cent, below the initial 4.5 per cent estimate.

Other questions related to cost-cutting measures such as shared services among councils and how many were in effect.

Several also focused on water quality issues such as stock movements, how water charges were calculated and the implementation of new smart water meters.

This proved a hot button item with shouts from audience members – many who were apparently keen gardeners.

Vergunst later challenged audience members to write a list of things they’d like council to cut costs on and to send them to her or submit them during the consultation process of the next annual plan.

“We love to hear from people and want them to submit,” she said.

During consultation on the Annual Plan there were only 66 submissions – a far cry from the 350-plus audience.

The purpose of the evening also seemed to be about transparency.

O’Callaghan called for council meetings to be recorded and councillor votes recorded.

Answers to some of the questions, such as councillor’s votes for the 2019/20 Annual Plan or dog registration fees increases, could be found in the readily available council reports, or in previous Times-Age articles.