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SWDC ‘needs to listen to ratepayers’

“South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] needs to take action to rebuild the confidence of ratepayers.”

This is one of eight recommendations from an inquiry by accounting firm BDO into the council’s 2021-31 rates rise miscommunication.

In its Long-Term Plan [LTP] Consultation Document, published in March 2021, SWDC indicated it needed to collect an extra 17.65 per cent in rates for the coming financial year.

This contradicted the LTP itself, which stated the rates income for the financial year would be $19,921,000, an increase of 29.6 per cent on the year prior.

After community outcry, the council apologised in September of that year for the miscommunication. It said the difference resulted from the council borrowing $1.5 million the previous year to give ratepayers a rates holiday amid covid, while still continuing with its proposed programme of works.

The BDO inquiry report was raised as an extraordinary item at Wednesday’s SWDC meeting, and the document was made available to the public that day.

BDO found that while the LTP Consultation Document was “in our opinion fit for purpose, it did not adequately reflect the rates increase required from the [2021 financial year] rate amounts paid by ratepayers, which were artificially lowered due to the Rates Holiday Borrowing”.

“In our opinion, we do not believe the Rates Holiday Borrowing was appropriately communicated over the entirety of the period impacted.” In its list of recommendations, BDO said the council needs to rebuild the confidence of ratepayers.

“This will require open, honest, and authentic communication with the ratepayers moving forward.”

BDO also suggested the council create a register of decisions with long-term impacts, use a rates calculator for annual and long-term plans, and engage an external peer reviewer of the plans.

“SWDC should look to create a culture of listening to ratepayers and engaging with those who have valid, well-articulated points on matters before the council.

“We recommend SWDC reviews its communication strategy on matters such as miscommunication.

“It took over four weeks for the first public communication to be made following the setting of the 2021-22 rates [noting this communication was light on detail] and over two months for a more detailed explanation to be distributed.

“This is likely to be too long in such emotionally charged situations.

“Communication on these sorts of matters needs to be timely, accurate, and let the ratepayers know what is being done [or when you will be able to let them know some options].”

To inform its inquiry, BDO interviewed councillors, four of whom said the public meetings held in November were “not well conducted, either in the content delivered, the requests for councillors not to speak [rather all communications were to be from the CEO an Mayor], or the behaviour of ratepayers in attendance”.

At Wednesday’s meeting, councillor Colin Olds asked chief executive Harry Wilson why the report wasn’t presented to the former council, given it was produced in July last year.

Wilson said the inquiry – which was commissioned by the council’s CEO Review Committee – required fact-checking and legal opinions on its publication, “and then basically we just got into the election period”.

“The intention was to release this to the Audit and Risk Committee, which of course didn’t exist during the election period.” –NZLDR

    Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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