There is a lot of talk about the dam in the media and even within council reports such as the Chairman of Engineering chairs report in the Engineering Committee minutes dated 30th of June 2017.
A lot of these reports contain allegations that some councillors are voting against the dam. These reports are factually incorrect. In a recent full council meeting dated 14th June 2017 half of the council voted not to accept a motion to contribute $3 million more (that the $25 million in the long term plan), underwrite the CIL loan to the irrigators of $25 million, and pick up the lion share of the running costs going forward. The motion was passed by use of the Mayoral casting vote.
The vote against the proposed increases in council funding was not an anti-dam vote as has been often misrepresented. It was more a concern that ratepayers will be locked into a minimum of 3% per annum rate increases for the foreseeable future. It may also require some scheduled capital projects to be pushed back to try and hold council under its 3% rate increase cap. We don’t know which projects yet because we have not discussed the schedule for the Long Term Plan 2018-2028.
This brings me to my question for the Mayor given that it was his casting vote that carried the motion. How can the ratepayers of the Tasman district afford to pay 3% rate increases for the foreseeable future?
I ask this question because only a few weeks ago we (the councillors) were asked to set the rates for the 2017-2018 year. We were told that we could get away with a 0.5% increase this round. There were a number of us that wanted to set a 1.5% increase (still well under the forecast 2.5% increase).
The logic behind our thinking was that the extra 1% increase could go toward paying down debt, building on the debt reduction already achieved by the last term council, and compound the benefits we are seeing from paying less interest than forecast. It would also protect us moving ahead from rate increases due to rising interest rates that we would have no control over. We feel that a little bit of pain now is preferable to potential catastrophic pain down the road.
The Mayor was leading the charge for those proposing the 0.5% rate increase. He told us that our council was in the top quartile amongst our peers for rate unaffordability. He also indicated that there are a lot of people struggling to pay their rates currently and that they simply couldn’t afford the 1.5% increase. While I agree with him that there are a lot of people struggling to pay their rates, I struggled to see how they would be better off in the long term with the 0.5% increase. That said, a 0.6% increase was eventually settled on.
Back to my question. What happened to those people? How can the people who could not afford a 1.5% increase this year afford to be paying 15% higher rates in five years time (actually with compounding increase: 3% per year every year for the next 5 years, it is more like 16% in five years)?
I have asked this question of the Mayor but did not receive a response.
The only conclusion that one can draw without further enlightenment is that issue was never one of rate affordability. Instead, it had more to do with a dam consultation proposed for later in the year and wanting to throw the public a bone prior to said consultation to help get it over the line.
Of course, this is only my “naive” and “uninformed” opinion as a new councillor, as the chair of Engineering would assert. However, with no other explanation offered by the Mayor I have to draw my conclusions with the facts as they sit on the table. The facts are that the Mayor has no problem contributing millions more to the dam causing rates to rise to at least 3% so he obviously does not think a 1.5% rate increase is too high as previously asserted.
I campaigned on a platform of more accountability from within the council. I will keep asking questions where I see inconsistencies in the information presented to me, and to you the ratepayer until I get answers. This may affect my longevity in this role as one long term councillor indicated today, but if I am only showing up to rubberstamp whatever is passed before me I might as well get a better paying job where I can contribute something useful to society.