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No change to rates, council looks to a new plan

South Wairarapa District Council chief executive Harry Wilson. PHOTO/EMILY IRELAND

Rates will not be re-set in South Wairarapa this financial year, despite a miscommunication of rates rises in the council’s Long-Term Plan [LTP] consultation document.

Instead, the LTP may be completely redone next year in the hopes of regaining the trust of ratepayers.

Alternatively, variations to the existing plan will be made.

The resolution to do so comes after more than two hours of discussions at a full council meeting on Wednesday, and three public meetings held in each South Wairarapa town this month.

In its LTP Consultation Document, published in March, SWDC indicated it needed to collect an extra 17.65 per cent in rates this financial year.

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

The council has since apologised for the miscommunication and said the difference resulted from the council borrowing $1.5 million last year to give ratepayers a rates holiday amid covid, while still continuing with its proposed programme of works.

Three options were considered by council on Wednesday, two of which would involve the resetting of rates.

Councillors decided to go with Option 3: “Making reductions in costs that do not significantly reduce levels of service via an amendment to the LTP to take effect next financial year”.

Discussions around the table were largely in favour of completely resetting the LTP though, which is still on the cards.

Jim Hedley.

Opening the meeting via Zoom was the public forum, at which ratepayer Jim Hedley stressed the council had lost the respect of its ratepayers as a result of the rates miscommunication.

Hedley has twice been ejected from the public forum in recent months for criticising council staff which breached the council’s standing orders.

“I just hope you have your finger close to the button Alex,” Hedley said to the mayor on Wednesday.

“Does that indicate you are going to be rude, offensive, or criticising of council staff or elected officials?,” Mayor Alex Beijen responded.

Hedley said, “I have always stated the truth”.

“One way of remedying this [rates] situation is perhaps looking at the salary of the CEO and the salary of the mayor and perhaps they would like to donate that back to the council to relieve the problem for ratepayers,” Hedley said.

“You also cut me off [last time] when I said you destroyed the reputation of the council.

“Have a look at what happened at the public meetings.

“[People] said quite clearly you had lost their respect.

“Just because you are a council does not give you respect.

“You have to earn that respect.”

Later in the meeting, after discussing potential cost savings, councillor Alistair Plimmer addressed the issue of the council’s reputation.

“The adjustments of saving $20k here and $5k there is not going to regain the confidence the public have for us.

“We need to focus on how we re-establish trust with the public.

“To me, that is the only issue here.”

He said the council needed to redo the LTP, “as difficult as that is, and as costly as that may well be”.

“We actually owe it to the public to go back and say, we listened to you, we made a mistake, and some of the wording in the document didn’t present the whole picture.”

Councillor Brian Jephson agreed.

“One thing I did get out of the meetings is that the savings we can make [that do not significantly reduce the levels of service] are peanuts.

“People aren’t going to accept that.

“We have taken a bit of a pasting over the rates, but I think we have just got to bite the bullet … and try to redo the LTP.”

Deputy Mayor Garrick Emms also supported redoing the LTP, as did councillor Rebecca Fox.

“It’s pretty clear we need to re-establish trust with the community, and there is wide agreement that we need to look at the LTP as the first place to do that,” Fox said.

Regarding what councillors discussed to save money, many options presented were delays of reviews such as the Rating Review and Representation Review.

Councillor Pam Colenso said she was uncomfortable with delaying costs and reviews that needed to be done anyway.

Beijen agreed.

It was also suggested by councillor Leigh Hay that the council discontinue its grants funding next year, other than for groups that the council has contractural commitments to.

Councillor Brenda West agreed.
“At the end of the day, a grant is a privilege and not a right,” West said.

“Yes we will be disappointing some people but we are looking at making savings.

“Perhaps this is where we need to make them.”

Other savings discussed included: cutting ties with Wellington Water; reducing the budget for repairs and maintenance; having more shared service agreements, imposing a tourist tax, reducing the number of cars used by council; and selling Hodder’s Farm and the Featherston Golf Course land.

These options were just discussed and not decided upon.

Council chief executive Harry Wilson said: “We’ve gone through the options raised by the community and if I was summarising, I can’t see anything here that would result in short-term savings for this financial year.

“But a lot of them are heavily pointing towards a need to consider them in an annual plan or through a variation to the long term plan.”

Annual plan work is set to begin in February.

It is at this time that a new LTP or a variation could be made.

If a new LTP is made, there would be no need for an annual plan for that financial year.

Councillors Beijen, Emms, Plimmer, Jephson, Hay, Colenso, and Fox voted to agree that ‘Option 3’ was the preferred option for the balance of the current financial year.

They also noted that “a full review of options with regards to either a new LTP or LTP adjustment be presented to [council] at the first council meeting of the [2022
calendar] year”.

West abstained from the vote.

Councillor Pip Maynard was absent from the meeting. – NZLDR

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