Calls for council to stop "wasteful spending"

The $13.7 million refurbishment of the Whakatāne District Council building last year was one of the main gripes with meeting goers. Photo: Troy Baker.

There was standing room only as some of Whakatāne’s more vocal critics of the district council met in the living room of community watchdog Sandy Milne this week.

Media was not invited to attend the Tuesday meeting, but Sandy hopes further “town hall” style meetings will come out of the group.

Sandy says he had to turn people away who wanted to attend as there was not enough space in his house.

“I’ve seldom seen so much energy at one meeting,” he says. “It was fun.”

Potential rates increases were at the top of people’s concerns since Mayor Victor Luca's announcement late last year that cost escalations, high interest rates and rising compliance and insurance costs had led to early budget scenarios indicating a 34.7 per cent increase in rates.

This had been whittled down to 27.8 per cent before the figures were made public, and Dr Luca says there was “still some way to go” before a draft budget was adopted for consultation.

Other hot topics were the need to prioritise a second bridge for Whakatāne and previous decisions that were seen as going against the desires of the majority of residents such as the $13.7 million refurbishment of the council building and the use of harbour fund money toward a boat harbour on Keepa Road that many people believe shouldn’t be build.

Mr Milne said the position of the harbour would exclude two locations previously suggested for a second bridge.

The recent announcement from Te Rahui Herenga Waka project partners that contaminants had been found at the harbour site was likely to greatly escalate the cost of the project and he did not want to see and further ratepayer money being poured into the scheme.

Community watchdog Sandy Milne.

The selection of a $75 million-plus option for the Rex Morpeth Recreation Hub Masterplan after a petition against it signed by 344 people was provided during the consultation period, was also a hot topic.

“How can they even dream up that plan when ratepayers are struggling to pay their rates.”

He also wanted to urge councillors to resist any any attempt by council managers to seek more staff.

Mayor Victor Luca faced up to the “lion’s den” on Tuesday to spend much of the three-hour meeting fielding questions about the workings of council.

He says he welcomed the community activism and that he had voted against the projects people were objecting to.

“I have explicitly said I’m one for taking care of basics first. I'll be looking to trim the tree down to the trunk.

“Apathy is the worst disease of all. If people say nothing, how are we, as elected officials, going to know what they want.”

He added that councils throughout the country were under significant cost pressures, especially with the new Government’s repeal of the Water Services Reform legislation.

“We’ve essentially been cut adrift by central government.”

Plans costing upwards of $75 million to refurbish Whakatāne District War Memorial Hall and surrounding parks have draw outrage from residents facing double figure rates rises in the coming year. File photo Whakatane War Memorial Hall.

The one accusation against council he said was completely unjustified was that it “lacked transparency and ran roughshod over people”.

“Every elected member’s phone number is made available on our website. All meeting agendas are there for anyone to see. All official reports are there, all long-term plans, annual plans and annual reports. We consult and we do listen to what people are saying.”

Another accusation that has been levelled against the council is refusing to reveal how many staff members earn over $100,000, information that is well documented in annual reports.

“People can easily find out the pay scales and the number of people on each scale.”

He urged people to reach out to their councillors and have their say, either informally or during the formal consultation process for this year’s long-term plan beginning in March.

The $13.7 million refurbishment of the Whakatāne District Council building last year was one of the main gripes with meeting goers. Photo: Troy Baker.

Former Whakatāne district councillor David Dowd also attended the meeting.

“It was good to see a diverse group of people prepared to take up the cudgel and get active on the things that are really concerning them," says David.

"I believe there’s a willingness and determination among people who attended the meeting to invest some of their valuable time into getting to know how council works and it is highly probable that some of them may start turning up at council meetings.”

David says almost a decade after he was a councillor himself, he planned to start attending meetings again as an observer, to see how it was all working now.

He says the main driver of the dissatisfaction with council was cost of living and, “to some extent, communications that could happen but aren’t”.

“The presumption is, therefore, that council is anti-critisism and deals poorly with it. I don’t know that I share all of those views, as I know more about the workings of council having worked within it.”

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

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