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Is SWDC out of its depth?

Greytown residents Colin Wright [left], John Hayes and John Norton. PHOTO/SUE TEODORO

SWDC sums questioned

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Prominent South Wairarapa residents are questioning if South Wairarapa district councillors were fully aware of the size of the rates increase when they passed the resolution on June 30.

The questions come as a former Wairarapa MP said council leaders should consider if they were out of their depth and, if they were, then resigning would be the honourable thing to do.

South Wairarapa District Council issued a public notice on September 3, apologising for earlier communications about the rates rise. The notice agreed with public commentators that the hike was 29 per cent.

Previously, in the introduction to the council’s Long Term Plan, Mayor Alex Beijen said rates rises would be 14.28 per cent for urban residents based on $350,000 land value, 14 per cent for lifestyle residents based on a $450,000 land value, and 3.9 per cent for rural residents based on a $2,800,000 land value.

“We are committed to absolute transparency in responding to this situation,” the notice said.

“We want to consider options to ease the rates burden on ratepayers by considering ways to reduce the budget and rates this year.”

In further clarification, a council spokesperson said this week that earlier consultation had referred to costs.

“Our LTP consultation document indicated that council needed to collect an extra 17.9 per cent. This focused on the increase in cost, rather than the increase in rates revenue.”

Former Wairarapa MP and diplomat John Hayes ONZM said the performance of the council suggested it was financially dysfunctional.

“It’s time for the mayor, councillors, town clerk [chief executive Harry Wilson] and chief financial officer to consider whether they have sufficient skill, or are out of their depth. If the latter, it would be honourable to resign.

“Doing so would quickly allow commissioners to be appointed, as has happened in Tauranga and when Kaipara council imposed a 31 per cent increase,” he said.

Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta appointed the Tauranga commissioners after an independent review in November 2020 which identified significant governance problems.

“Our community has a relatively high proportion of people who have no other income but national superannuation. They are the people being financially damaged by councillors’ decisions,” Hayes said.

He said the council appeared to have serious governance and financial challenges that seemed beyond councillors’ ability to resolve.

“They have failed to take responsibility for their actions. They have failed to right their wrongs,” he said.

Hayes referenced online video recordings of council meetings showing limited substantive discussion of the increases.

A YouTube video of the June 30 council meeting showed the rates resolution was discussed for about one minute. The debate was limited to one query, and the resolution was passed

A councillor asked for confirmation of the size of rates increase.

“I’ve just got one question,” she said.

“On the rates examples you gave on page 117, are these what we anticipate to be the finals? An average per cent increase for residential of 14.28”?

This was confirmed with a ‘yes’ and clarification that related to a valuation of $350,000.

Greytown resident and international consultant in the aid sector, John Norton, said there were questions whether individual councillors knew they were voting for a 29 per cent increase.

He asked several councillors in writing but received no substantive replies.

Norton said the questions were framed for councillors to consider whether they had been misled, and he had not expected answers.

“I did not particularly expect a response, but I did hope they would have responded to whether they expected a 29 per cent increase when they signed off on June 30,” he said.

“I have had indications they were not aware of it, but they haven’t specifically said so.

“I suspect they may be feeling uncomfortable and foolish.

“We know they were not given good information on June 30, and I suspect they didn’t know what they were voting for. Why can’t they deal with this?”

Norton said it would be easy to fix the problem if the council wanted to.

“They need a special council meeting to agree a new rates resolution for what has been consulted on.”

Former district councillor and long-term Carterton District Council chief executive Colin Wright agreed.

“It’s rather obvious they believed they were voting on an increase in the vicinity of 4 per cent rural and 14 per cent lifestyle and urban, as stated in the mayor’s introduction to the Long Term Plan.

“They thought they were approving something very much smaller than it turned out to be.”

Wright was concerned the council would now ignore the problem, hoping it would blow over.

“Each individual councillor needs to examine their consciences.”

The Times-Age asked the council if councillors knew rates were rising by 29 per cent when they voted.

“Our response is in the letter to our community that we published on September 3. It is self-explanatory,” a spokesperson said.

“Our finances have been audited and have been approved. Our LTP consultation process was robust and correct. The rates have been set accurately and are legal. It was a genuine oversight that the impact of the borrowings from 2020 was not communicated during the LTP consultation process.”

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