Irate ratepayers pack out the South Wairarapa Council meeting in July. PHOTO/FILE
Community response has been guarded to the surprise South Wairarapa District Council public apology and explanation about its rates increases.
Community leaders and others criticised the time it took for the council to respond and questioned what and when concrete steps would be taken to address the issue. Many said the council has lost public confidence.
The council explanation of this year’s 29 per cent increase comes after a raft of complaints, including to the Office of the Auditor General and two petitions to Parliament. Requests to council for public meetings had, until Monday, been denied or postponed.
After weeks of denying the rates increase had been 29 per cent, the council appeared to agree that was the correct figure.
Featherston Community Board chairman Mark Shepherd said the rates hikes had a huge impact on the South Wairarapa community.
People on fixed incomes were having to go without heating, insurance, and fuel. Some were even considering giving pets up, unable to afford their upkeep.
“This is having an impact on our communities’ mental health,” he said.
He had asked the district mayor Alex Beijen and chief executive Harry Wilson for a public meeting.
“I was told by the chief executive they would not hold a public meeting.”
He said many would have difficulty understanding the council explanation, but keep quiet because they didn’t want to make a fuss.
“We want three public meetings. We have been pushing for this,” he said, saying there should be one in each town.
“People want to know what they are getting for the extra money.”
The Martinborough Community Board issued a statement.
“Martinborough Community Board is pleased to see a response to the rates increase from SWDC. We will be following up with our community in regard to this new information to ascertain what our residents want to see as next steps.”
The Martinborough board restated its recommendation to the council to hold a public meeting in Martinborough.
Board deputy chairman Aidan Ellims said many were struggling.
“Pensioners and rural people have been hit hard. It’s affecting huge numbers.”
He said the council needed to spend what was available.
“Consulting with the community about what projects to prioritise is important.”
Martinborough resident John Errington said the explanation reflected the intense pressure on the council.
“At last there is some honesty, but only because they have been forced to do this. It’s a little too late for the council because people have lost faith in them.”
Errington said the proposed budget review was overdue.
“They should have done that six months ago.”
“They must have public meetings,” he said, saying rates should be kept at a lower level until the review was finished.
“Some people just can’t afford them.”
Former district councillor and a longtime former Carterton chief executive Colin Wright was one of those who wrote to the OAG. He described the explanation as a ‘huge smokescreen’.
Wright said the rates were almost double what the council consultation said they would be.
“That only started to come out a month later in late July when people received their rates bill and the council has admitted nothing for about five weeks until right now,” he said.
“A sincere apology should include how they are going to put things right… which option they will choose which would result in a rate reduction for this current year.”
Martinborough resident Daphne Geisler said the published explanation had not clarified issues.
“I remain concerned that not only do SWDC have a problem with clear communication, but they also have a problem with financial management,” she said.
“All they have done for five weeks is avoid, confuse, hide and spin.
“There is a lot more to say about this statement and I look forward to the mayor’s promise of a public meeting.”
Former district councillor Lee Carter said the delayed response by the council was poor timing and disingenuous.
She also called for public meetings in all three towns and said the rates should now be reduced.
“This doesn’t mean we stop doing things, but we achieve outcomes and delivery over a longer period.
“The mayor and councillors must get their heads around the fundamentals of council accounts, we cannot afford to have this happen again.”