Sunday, 27 September 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Tough decisions ahead for elected council members

Sleepless nights may well be a reality for the elected members of Thames-Coromandel District Council over the next month as they face the mammoth challenge of restoring order to the local authority’s books.

This week councillors learned the operating deficit for the current financial year (ending 30 June) is now forecast to be $7.1 million - a further increase on the $6.6 million anticipated following a revision of the current financial year’s Annual Plan in October last year. The additional blow-out is due to reduced revenue from fees and consents as a result of Covid-19.

It’s yet more bad news for TCDC as it prepares to try and adopt a budget for 2020/21 against a backdrop of public discontent over spending overruns and a proposed 9.98 per cent rates hike. While the issues are set to be thrashed out between the members at a deliberation meeting on 2 June, some councillors have already made their feelings known.

Even before hearing from members of the public during two days of oral submissions on TCDC’s draft Annual Plan 2020/2021 last week, Coromandel-Colville Ward councillor, John Morrissey, was pointing to the impacts of Covid-19 and making his position clear. “The one thing that this situation has brought home is the fact that we’re going to have to look really closely at our 10 per cent rate increase, I’ve never been happy with it, I’m even less so now,  a lot of people out there are hurting,” he said. “We need to seriously look at that and work at getting it less.”

The comments came as councillors discussed spending for a Covid-19 response package with some members questioning whether this was council’s responsibility. “I’m very concerned that we are committing ourselves to things that don’t seem to be our core services. We are financially in the … and spending any money at all I think we need to reflect on very carefully,” said South East ward councillor, Gary Gotlieb.

While the response package was approved, the discussion illustrated a clear intent from some elected members to restrict council spending to essential activities. “I’m in the camp of going back to basics, I would like to see a lot of our grants go by the board, because they are unnecessary and let’s get back to our real hard knitting and look at what we’ve got to do,” said Mercury Bay Ward councillor and deputy-mayor, Murray McClean. “It’s a case of wants and needs and I think the wants are going out the window a bit and the needs are coming in.”

While Mr Mclean was not in favour of the 9.98 per cent figure, he urged his colleagues to keep in mind that it was only the equivalent of a cup of coffee a week.

Mercury Bay Ward’s other councillor, Tony Fox, expressed disappointment with the public’s response during the consultation period for the draft Annual Plan 2020/2021, describing the number of submissions as “pitiful.” “Two hundred odd people out of 30,000 I think shows how much real interest is out there,” he said.

Of the 233 submissions received, most objected to the scale of the rates increase as well as the rise in many user fees. “Some people I talk to, yes 10 per cent’s a lot. It’s a lot because we deliver a lot and there’s a lot to be delivered, and we know it should be a lot more than that,” Mr Fox pointed out. “A lot of people I’ve talked to are quite understanding of the 10 per cent and I think they’d expect to see that for a few years to come. Having gone back and looked at where our rates have been for probably the last 15 almost 20 years, it’s catch up time now and I think we’ll have difficulty trying to play with the rate number when so much of our other revenue will be gone and other revenue will be slower to come in. But as sure as I sit here, the roads will need to be fixed and the footpaths will need to be fixed and the water will need to be fixed.”

TCDC chief executive, Rob Williams, has already indicated that staff will offer the elected members a number of alternative options ahead of the deliberation meeting. These options have yet to be released, but are expected to include cuts to non-essential spending and a smaller rates increase. The elected members will adopt the final Annual Plan and set the rates on 23 June.

Pictured: Thames-Coromandel District Council's Mercury Bay Ward councillors Murray McLean & Tony Fox.

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