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Ratepayers take a swipe

Harry Wilson at the Martinborough rates meeting. PHOTOS/SUE TEODORO

Martinborough ratepayers put council officials under pressure in a boisterous meeting about recent unexpected rate hikes.

During a two-hour town hall meeting on Thursday night, more than 50 angry locals put South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] mayor Alex Beijen and chief executive, Harry Wilson, through their paces. A steady barrage of questions from the floor covered everything from financial transparency and spending to public accountability.

Beijen and Wilson struggled at times to present their PowerPoint slides explaining the 30 per cent hike and suggesting possible fixes for the issue, as attendees interrupted to ask questions.

Consultation documents for this year’s Long Term Plan had appeared to indicate the rises would be about 14 or 17 per cent. When bills went out in July, ratepayers discovered they were almost double that, on average.

SWDC issued a public apology in early September, citing a miscommunication.

One attendee drew loud applause from the crowd when he asked for concrete action.

“It needs to be reminded that we employed you, not the other way around. You are answerable to us. You need to answer to us. What is your solution, and how are you going to fix it?”

Beijen hoped the meetings themselves would be part of the solution.

“We are dropping our pants and telling you what happened,” he said.

Facilitator Bill Dolan intervened at times to ensure the meeting proceeded in an orderly way.

“Excuse me, can we go one nominated speaker at a time, please. We’ll get nowhere if everyone shouts at once,” he said.

Martinborough resident Clem Beck raised a lack of confidence in the council in the opening minutes of the meeting.

“Why do we feel we are being shafted? To have you speak and us listen is the reverse of what we were told. It’s a question of trust,” he said, referring to the structure of the meeting with presentations first and questions afterwards.

Beijen cited rising costs and ageing infrastructure as key drivers for the rates increase, citing community safety, roading and maintaining a good level of basic services, among others.

“We are facing an increased number of significant challenges. We have a relatively small population, yet we have a third of the Wellington region’s land area,” he said.

“If we are to bring our infrastructure up to standard against the levels you and the government expect of us, we have to manage the realities brought about through previous lack of investment.

“All of these services require additional funding,” he said.

Wilson apologised for the miscommunication. He said in an effort to offset the expected impact of covid last year, SWDC had taken a loan in the 2020/21 rates year.

“That’s the bit we did not communicate well.”

Beijen and Wilson presented three possible options for fixing the problem. Option three, which involved making $328,000 identifiable savings this year and carrying them over to next year, was preferred. Beijen stressed no decisions had been made yet.

A feature of the meeting was spontaneous audience contributions, with many focusing on the district’s most vulnerable.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to pay my rates,” said one person.

“I feel very sad there’s such a division between council and ratepayers,” said another.

“People simply can’t afford these rates. There’s people here who can’t afford to pay their insurances; they can’t afford food. I just don’t think you guys get that. You think you do, but you really don’t,” he said.

Deputy chair of the Martinborough Community Board [MCB], Aidan Ellims, spoke on the group’s behalf.

“It was great the meeting was held because ratepayers were able to raise their issues and voice their frustrations in a public forum,” he said.

“The three options provided don’t seem to deliver a concrete solution to ratepayers. Option three is essentially only deferring expenditure to the following years. It appears to be tokenism.”

Daphne Geisler asks a question at the Martinborough rates meeting.

After the meeting, Martinborough resident Daphne Geisler said she was pleased Wilson had agreed to send out detailed financial information.

“This will go a long way towards allowing us to see where our money is being spent and the options before council on savings.”

SWDC plan to meet this week to decide which of the three options to adopt.

A SWDC spokesperson said the council appreciated the feedback.

“We had hoped for some really good feedback on the options council has considered on how to reduce rates costs and their ideas on cost-savings. However, the conversation was hindered by some who were stuck in a blame-groove. It was unfortunate that whilst there seemed to be residents with genuine questions, many attendees seemed to have come purely to argue and attack elected officials. Their behaviour was in the main, unacceptable,” they said.

The spokesperson said the council was aware of where it went wrong, and it was time to move on, focus on solutions and get on with their mandated job.

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