Rotorua Lakes Council: average rates rise 11.4%

Rotorua Lakes Council councillor Lani Kereopa. Photo / Andrew Warner.

Claims of “budget blowouts” and sewerage scheme “mismanagement” have prompted a Rotorua councillor to back a community request for a “thorough investigation”.

Rotorua Lakes Councillor Lani Kereopa made the comments at a council meeting yesterday as she and colleagues approved the district’s 10-year plan, including an average rates rise of 11.4 per cent in the first year.

The essentials-focused draft Long-Term plan went out for consultation in April, after 14 workshops.

The council received 1474 submissions and held hearings followed by deliberations on 14 proposals over three days, making several changes to the plan.

These included dropping the upfront cost for homeowners being connected to the East Rotoiti - Rotomā sewerage scheme to $22,486, down from $45,000. There had been many submissions about the scheme’s affordability given a prior estimate of about $14,000.

Councillors were divided on whether to adopt the plan on Wednesday – here’s how they voted.

Councillor Conan O’Brien - Against

“There are certainly some very good things we have managed to achieve here,” Conan ays.

The two sewerage schemes – the other is at Tarawera – were “not perfect”, but he says he believed the community could understand the council did its best to provide certainty over what they would need to pay, and that it was still exploring other funding options.

Rotorua Lakes councillor Conan O'Brien. Photo / Laura Smith.

He was concerned about the overall rates rise and was against approving the short-term accommodation charge due to what he believed to be process issues.

It was “not the plan that could have transformed Rotorua”, he says.

“I regret that.”

Councillor Robert Lee - Against

Robert referred to “process issues” that troubled him, such as iwi-council meetings he says councillors, the public and media were not invited to nor advised of.

Robert referenced Ngāti Whakaue Gifted Reserves Protocol Committee meetings, and his belief council staff were acting on decisions made in them.

Mayor Tania Tapsell questioned the relevance of his comments and says councillors were provided overviews of the meetings.

Robert says it was relevant to the plan in that he viewed the issues as undermining councillor decisions.

Councillor Don Paterson - Against

Don acknowledged he did not attend the plan hearings or deliberations. He says he had gone through “many submissions” to get an understanding of people’s views.

He believed there was a trend of spending more than anticipated, and worried debt would exceed the $500 million peak in 2029.

Rotorua Lakes Council's Civic Centre as viewed from Hinemaru St. Photo / Laura Smith.

He also held process concerns.

“Ratepayers are asked little more than to comment,” he says.

“People can’t keep digging into their pockets. An increase of 53.5 per cent over nine years is not sustainable … ”

Councillor Lani Kereopa - For

Lani says she supported the decision to ask central Government to reallocate $2.5m of Be Better Off funding from the Aquatic Centre to wastewater or core infrastructure work.

“To help support our families who may lose their home as a direct result of the [East Rotoiti - Rotomā sewerage scheme]”.

It was at a cost to children “who deserved hydro slides, and our elderly who deserve warm waters to bathe in”, she says.

Elected members earlier in the month voted unanimously to pour $5.424m more into the scheme to spread a greater share of the cost across all ratepayers, costing them an extra $15.50 a year for 25 years, and reducing the upfront cost for households in the scheme.

“Budget blowouts” around the scheme had horrendous impacts, she says.

“Not only financially, but the stress, anger and feelings of hopelessness and betrayal felt by those communities is unacceptable.”

She says there was a community desire for a “thorough investigation into how mismanagement [of the scheme] could occur” and she supported this.

She supported approving the plan as she believed it would be worse for the communities if she did not.

Council chief executive Andrew Moraes previously says the standard of experience customers received through the sewerage project was “far below what I believe council and council staff would like to provide”.

The reasons why were complex, he says, and not always clearly communicated. Aggravating factors, such as cost, were outside council control, Moraes says.

Mayor Tania Tapsell - For

Tania acknowledged the “heartfelt” submissions and presentations.

In her view: “It was incredibly challenging to see people from across our district … who were very upset or distressed at affordability issues and their concerns about past mismanagement, increasing costs and a lack of transparency.”

Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell. Photo / Laura Smith.

She says it was “ambitious but realistic” and would createpositive change for Rotorua and while it was a challenging financial time, the city needed to stop spending in some areas and invest where it could.

“We can’t have it all.”

Tania noted the workshops were made public for transparency, and that the financial plan had been independently audited.

Councillor Rawiri Waru - For

Rawiri’s comments provided context to the plan, and his belief past councils lacked foresight or strength to make big decisions.

“That’s come to a head. It’s not just us, it’s all councils across New Zealand.”

He understood not all would agree on each aspect of the plan.

“We’re voted in here to make decisions … I’m supportive of the kaupapa but, to note, not everything in there is my cup of tea. In three years we get to make a review.”

Councillor Fisher Wang - For

Fisher did not believe anyone would be “100 per cent happy” with the plan but this reflected “the difficult times we are in”.

Rotorua Lakes councillor Fisher Wang. Photo / Laura Smith.

He says he supported adopting the plan because the consequences of not striking the rates nor passing the “significant amount of investment into infrastructure” was “far greater than any single proposal” he would have liked in the plan.

Growth would only happen if the council invested wisely, he says.

Deputy mayor Sandra Kai Fong - For

The plan was not perfect, Sandra says, as it was “finishing work of previous councils”, such as in infrastructure.

For that reason it focused on delivering priorities during the planning process, she says.

She says the council did not get some of these right and had refined them, including its short-term rental charge, aquatic centre plans and skatepark plans.

Regarding debt, Sandra says the council considered “our premise of smart investment”, comfort with the debt limit and headroom for an unexpected event.

Councillor Karen Barker - For

Karen says affordability was a key challenge for people, and while an 11 per cent rates rise “doesn’t seem affordable”, the council faced a 25 per cent cost increase in delivering infrastructure projects.

“The balance for us is trying to spread that in a way affordable to the community.”

Councillor Gregg Brown - For

Gregg supported the finalised plan.

“I would see this as a balanced approach to the future.”

Councillor Trevor Maxwell

Trevor says he believed the council could have “handled some things better so it did not receive 1500 submissions most of whomwere unhappy”.

It had the opportunity to “put things right”, he says, and supporting the plan was “the right thing to do”.

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air.

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