South Wairarapa residents and ratepayers sitting in the public gallery before a walkout at the council meeting in Martinborough. PHOTO/SUE TEODORO
SUE TEODORO and MARCUS ANSELM
A council meeting in Martinborough turned ugly on Tuesday as scores of angry and frustrated ratepayers heckled and jeered, forcing the mayor to thump his gavel multiple times and threaten to eject them.
It was standing room only at a meeting of South Wairarapa District Council as more than 60 agitated ratepayers fronted up to support submitters demanding answers about massive rates hikes.
The council publicly announced last month rates would rise by just over 14 per cent, but when bills went out many discovered their rates had gone up by more than 25 per cent.
Figures tabled by Martinborough ratepayer Daphne Geisler showed total rates income had gone up 28 per cent.
Shocked gasps, shouting from the public gallery, and a mass walkout came after South Wairarapa Mayor Alex Beijen’s announcement there would be no public debate after the submissions.
Beijen brought the gavel down loudly many times and said unless council rules were followed, people would have to leave.
“I will have to ask you to leave the building,” he said.
“Ask us to leave then,” someone heckled.
After this, most in the public gallery spontaneously got up and walked out.
During the meeting, person after person accused the council of a lack of communication and providing misleading information about the rates.
“The final rates agreed by you all were very different from the rates you proposed in the consultation,” Geisler said.
“Your behaviour serves to diminish my trust in council and reinforces my lack of confidence in your abilities as our elected representatives.
“Why didn’t just one of you around the table on June 30 say ‘woah’ we’ve just approved 28 per cent increase and we’re going to tell people 14.28 per cent. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Actuary John Errington agreed the total rate take was up 28 per cent, while the council said they were up 14 per cent.
“In my view as an actuary, the use of [the council’s] example can be best described as misleading or deceptive or hiding behind actual property increase values,” he said, referring to SWDC explanations of the apparent discrepancy.
“It behoves the council to be open and honest and to internally question all the numbers they are going to approve,” he said.
Former councillor Lee Carter said the the council process was inadequate and lacked transparency.
“Many people are scared, frightened and angry. Is this how you want our people to live?” she asked.
“Carry on this way and you won’t only have failing infrastructure, you will also have failing communities.
“You have failed the people you are here to represent with poor decision-making and lack of credible communication and information.
“When people ring the council to understand their rates bill, it is not helpful that council staff become angry and tell them they should be grateful they don’t live in Carterton because their rates are higher than ours.
“As a ratepayer I don’t agree with council inviting people unhappy with their rates to meet with Harry Wilson the chief executive. Private meetings with the CE are not transparent.”
Carter called for a public meeting so concerns could be addressed openly.
“Public meetings in all three towns would be helpful for people to come to terms with the shock of their recent rates rise.”
She said skyrocketing bills meant pensioners and others on fixed incomes would suffer and questioned how SWDC had factored discussion of the hikes into the recent long-term public planning process.
“Your decisions have had serious impacts on many people especially the elderly and pensioners.
“The main message from people is they don’t get enough notice on how much their rates were going to increase. We are not just talking one, two or three hundred dollars, but six, seven, eight and even twelve hundred dollars annual increase,” she said.
Carter said pensioners would be going without heating and other necessities to pay the bills, with some having to pay the council up to $200 more every quarter.
Warren Woodgyer said his rates had gone up by 21 per cent.
“It’s obvious from the public outcry the advertised rate increase of 14.5 per cent was well off the mark.”
Woodgyer echoed Carter and said all ratepayers were hurting, especially those on fixed incomes.
“Add in power, food and insurance increases and the situation is bleak.”
He said services provided were substandard, with water, footpaths and roads not up to scratch.
“I along with many other ratepayers am angry and disillusioned.”
After the mid-meeting walkout, council members discussed how best to respond.
After the meeting Beijen said the council appreciated community members taking the opportunity to express their concerns at the meeting about the rates rises.
He said formal protocols restricted councillors’ ability to respond to the public submitters.
“Council meetings are a ‘meeting in public’, and not a ‘public meeting’.