Tasman District Council has locked in the new Long Term Plan (LTP) for the next ten years (reviewed in 3 years). It locks you in to more debt and more rate increases, which is interesting given that I ran against a deputy mayor with twenty years experience who publicly stated he believed he would keep us within the $200million debt cap and 3% rate increases. At the time, I said I didn’t see how we could given that the dam was still blowing out (as it still is) and the costs associated with pending Government reviews such as the three waters.
That is not the only time that I challenged fiscal wherewithal of our current leadership. I challenged the continued un-budgeted spending that this Council was approving early in the term when COVID was rearing its ugly head around the world. I was told by the Mayor that this council was “well informed of the likely impact of COVID.” Two weeks later the country was in level 4 lock down and a couple of weeks after that we were passing a zero percent rate increase for the year. If our leadership were so well informed, why were they still proposing and passing million dollar un-budgeted projects?
I railed against the constant haphazard proposals to accommodate the increasing staff numbers. For instance we hired a floor above the mall for staff. At the time staff were telling me that this was a temporary measure. I said that we would never shrink back, but the CEO assured me that we would once the rolling renovations were carried out in the TDC building.
Fast forward a few months and we are being presented with another “once in a lifetime” opportunity to lease another level of office space. This on top of the proposal to expand the current Council chambers. Calling a halt to this constant haphazard expansion I said we needed a proper review of what was required. That was passed, as was a motion to halt spending on the Council chamber upgrade.
Fast-forward a mere two weeks and over the Christmas break staff carried out a renovation of the chambers, moving a tearoom and expanding the chamber footprint. I am yet to receive an explanation as to how staff have the authority to override a council resolution – other than it was accommodated within existing budgets.
The result of the accommodation review was that we need a completely new and updated building for staff. It was deemed to be an urgent requirement and we should get right on to it. So I tried to have funds allocated in the LTP that was just passed. Staff (and management) refused to allocate any funds in the consulted on LTP.
Why? Well because we did not have a quote.
Just like we don’t have a quote, or even a plan for the Million dollars of funding set aside for a regional boat launching facility.
Just like we don’t have a location or design for the Recreation Centre proposed for somewhere between Hope and Wakefield – but we do have funds allocated.
Just like a dam that we didn’t have a quote for but had (woefully inadequate) funds set aside in previous LTPs.
After we had consulted on the LTP and before we had even signed off on it, staff were back telling us about the urgency of the accommodation problem and how we need to start taking action because of “long lead times” and “Council reputation.” Even though the Government is about to remove much of Council’s responsibilities (and staff), and may even be about to amalgamate Councils with their big-is-better attitude.
One can only speculate that the real reason that we didn’t allocate funds for this imminently urgent project is that it would have pushed our LTP debt figure of the magic $300 million figure that is politically unpalatable (and might result in the appointment of a commissioner). Apparently, Mayor Kempthorne, had earlier proposed an LTP that reached similar heady spending heights, and was told it might be wiser to rein in spending. And a figure that starts to run into Government legislated debt cap ceiling issues.
Which draws me to the “Debt Cap” that we recently consulted on. Previously, we had a $200 million self
imposed debt cap. It was a figure well above the current debt levels of the day, and set to be a ceiling.
What we have now, is very different. Even though we use the same terminology of “debt cap.”
How is it different you might ask? Well, our current $280 million debt cap, knocked down to some $250 million by moving a bit of the debt into the Dam CCO (where we don’t have to include it in our figures), is not really a cap. Rather, it is a projected level of spend. Any future unbudgeted spend will automatically push this figure up. For example, unbudgeted spend like new staff accommodation.
A real debt cap, should not move because of the spending whims of a majority of councillors. Other unbudgeted spend that might occur – and has already occurred – is another Dam blow out. Already, we are up to the higher end of the most recent budget given by Waimea Water (the Dam company). The figures included in our consulted on LTP were at the middle to lower end of the forcasted budget. And let us not forget that we are only just over half way through the build, with COVID inflation likely to push up the cost of steel and imported materials – and without further “surprises” in the “bedrock”, that Mike Scott said was better than expected.
Speaking of inflation. Another example of how out-of-touch with global reality our management are: I tried to point out the cost to the ratepayers of the proposed level debt when interest rates go to 6% or 8 %. I was challenged by the deputy Mayor as to what they would be at 2% interest.
At $250 million (and doing some simple maths) its doesn’t take much of a shift in interest rates with such high debt, to affect rates. Amidst the round of chortling from the old-boy network for even thinking interest rates would go up, he retorted that he had information suggesting otherwise. I only hope its not the same advisor, who told him the Dam price was fixed?
In a world where global inflation is at levels not seen since the early 1980’s we apparently believe that interest rates will continue at 2% levels and not 1980’s levels. These are the same people “can’t be sure” that the dam will continue to overrun. Although, councilor Mailing would not take up my wager that the dam would not be built for the most recently forecast figure, which is surprising given how much higher that figure is than the $104 million that he publicly personally guaranteed he would ensure it would be built for (and on time) at the time of the last elections.
On the dam front: it is interesting to learn that the “shear zone” which is directly under the dam abutment is “not an earthquake faultline” according to Mr Kirby our head of engineering. I was asking Mike Scott if the shear zone is what a lay person might call an earthquake faultline. He said it was not, to which I suggested that begs the question of what the difference is. Mr Kirby gave a somewhat more detailed response defending the position that a shear zone is a small fracture caused by movement elsewhere (like one of the two faultlines either side of the dam). A shear zone is a small (in this case 5 meter wide by few hundred meters long) fracture, whereas a fault line stretches many miles.
Now whether we call it a fault line or not would appear to be semantics and headline damage control. What we have is a fracture caused by earth movement that sits right under the dam structure. If the ground moves again – along a fault line that is not this shear zone – what are the chances that this shear zone will respond by opening up more? Or perhaps there will be another shear zone near by that will open up – remember there is going to be an extraordinary amount of extra pressure here once the reservoir is filled. But of course I am no geologist. And maybe the concrete band aid we are applying will stop any future ground movement and the water will not flow out new cracks, nor will the dam crumble around a failing abutment during an earthquake.
I guess we should be reassured that the recently disgraced ex-MP Nick Smith cast his engineering trained eye over the site and said he could see no issues. He also guaranteed a bottle of win to those downstream of the dam in the event of a dam failure. Which I am sure is of great comfort to those down the valley.
It is also comforting to know that we are having an inquiry into the dam process that saw us go from a “P95” (95% certain to come in on or under budget) $75.9 million dam to a “good as fixed price” $104 million dam to a who-knows-where-we-will-end-up $million dam. As mentioned before, it already has gone up another $5 million (equating to $163 million) within a week of the LTP being signed off.
What is odd about the inquiry is that it only came about after much public noise. It was previously unsupported by council as a measure of good governance practice. How times can change. A few weeks can be a long time for some memories. According to the CEO it is now a way of clearing staff names that have been called in to question. It will be interesting to see if it meets the brief.
I voted against it. Which may seem to odd to those who heard me calling for it in the first place.
The scope of the inquiry is purely retrospective. There is no provision to investigate the current management and governance of the dam which is the only place that savings can potentially be found for the ratepayer. A retrospective inquiry can be held at any time, there is no urgency, and little to be gained on this project. Yes, it would be good to expose the decision making that got us in this position but what real-world governance would allow a project to overrun three times the P95 price only half way through the job without questioning the delivery?
Unfortunately, the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) was not interested in undertaking this inquiry either – according to staff advice on the day we voted. At least that is what we were told, until councillor Greening asked for confirmation of this position. Within a few days, staff were advising that the OAG might now be interested, and that staff would be seeking clarification. A few weeks later, and the OAG advised us that because council had undertaken their own review, an OAG review was not necessary. Apparently it pays to take the drivers seat, if you want to avoid a truly independent review?
On the bright side, John Palmer’s (ex-CEO of the bankrupted Solid Energy and man assuring us that the dam was going to be built to the P95) brother is involved in a review of Local Government. As quoted in a RNZ interview:
Review panel chair Jim Palmer said it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference, but warned the decisions made were “not going to please everybody all of the time”.
We look forward to another 12 months of a more-of-the-same only more expensive Council.