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Author/Moderator - William (Bill) Barclay 

 

Associate Member NZ Media Council.   

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Monday
Dec132010

Closed Workshops

A concerted attempt to keep contentious issues under wraps until concensus has been reached through "closed workshops" has become evident. This is understandable after the previous open debate policy was perceived by many as disharmony and discord.

The problem is that it is easy for the democratic process to be subverted through these workshop deliberations, with the general public often simply presented with a "fait accompli".

I for one prefer open government where matters are discussed in the public arena, to the alternative. And so it appears does  new Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker who has promised that workshops in her Council will be open to the public wherever possible during her term. 

Mayor Leach should have more confidence in his ability to control open meetings, and avoid attempting to create an atmosphere of false harmony. The public is ill-served by these tactics - they are doomed to fail anyway as members begin to feel the discomfit of "consensus decisions" where their own strong views are hidden from sight.  Again, watch this space. 

Monday
Dec132010

Capital Expenditure

Capital expenditure ($1.760m) on the three waters (waste, storm and potable) to 30 October (four months) is running at 33.5% of budget (and 9.33% of the annual budget). Even allowing for delays over winter, this is historically very slow progress on the capital program, and has the effect of slowing down debt funding to the point where commitment is running 12% inside Council's self imposed borrowing limits.

Unused bank facilities are holding at $28.3m, but new councillors should not get their hopes up of being able to keep campaign promises from this source, particularly in Whitianga and Thames. There is not  $28.3m out there to play with - there is still $17m to go on the three waters alone, let alone any of the other commitments that Council has.

The figures as presented are curious to say the least, and possibly indicate a degree of timidity in the commitment to the works program. Account presentation improvement achieved over the last two years are to be applauded, but there remains far too little explanation of such a substantial shortfall.

Councillors should be demanding an explanation at the first opportunity.

 

Saturday
Dec112010

Business is great - yeah right!

Businesses in Thames are hurting, if not just closing down.

But hold on, Liquorland has just opened a new emporium in the old No 1 Shoe Store - things can't be so bad after all. More about the booze barn later.

Don't be fooled by the opening in the new "No. 1" in the box store over the road - that is purely a short term lease "Summer Store" selling el cheapo summer gear - it will be gone in the flash of an eye, together with its temporary banners. PGG Wrightson appears to be on the way out having outlived its ability to meet the needs of Plains farmers from Thames.

No, it is all an illusion - there are many who are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Subbies in every trade are just living day to day, and long term employees may find the post Christmas situation extremely difficult. I am told that December cash flows are as slow as they have been for many years, and that there is considerable anxiety within the banking community.

It may not be Council's role to intervene, but councillors cannot continue to have their head in the sand - it will only need a few more major businesses to close around Thames for the entire rating base to take a beating like never before. Only two elected members ranked economic development as the most important Council activity.

Something has to be done, and urgently to re-inspire a level of confidence around this town. Other towns have done it, and and so can we - there are enough planning staff around the TCDC building to conjure up long term plans for 50 years out. If some of them still want to have a job in 5 years, it may be time that some of that effort was directed into planning for the immediate future of Thames in particular, but other towns as well that are curently entirely dependent on tourism and the retirement industry.

Lets get on with the Kopu and aquaculture plans without any further delay. Promotion of the town as great place to retire may not bring in the young and vibrant, but in the meantime, house prices will continue to fall. House prices are dropping by the day, and no amount of real estate supplement hype can alter that fact. Very little is selling and certainly there is minimal building activity on either side of the Pennisula.

If you doubt this for one moment, just follow the money in the Development Contribution figures in the Council Financial Statements - there is nothing happening - full stop.  

 

 

Friday
Dec102010

Development Contributions

For the entire 36 months I was on Council, the only consistent defect of the Financial Reports was that the Development Contributions were under budget on each and every occasion they were presented.

Believe it or not, the last set of accounts presented to the new Council on 8 December contains the staggering statement that DC's are again short, by $259,000, or 58% on budget, and the explanation is "that we will be in a very uncertain environment for at least two more years". You have to wonder about the learning environment. Fortunately this consistent shortfall was offset by regular over-collections in other revenue streams.

It is perhaps significant to note that DC Sundry Debtors have jumped from $134,000 to $501,000 in twelve months. It goes without saying that developers, and the money they owe should be watched very carefully. TCDC has generally been pretty good with collections, but complacency is contagious. I trust that at least one new Councillor will continue to watch DC's, and question any further untoward  growth in DC sundry debtors.

Thursday
Dec092010

Mayor on the Ball (Berl?)

Once again Council is being subjected to the advice of "experts" in relation to growth projections on which so many planning decisions are based. Until two  years ago when they were replaced by Berl Economics, the University of Waikato provided Council with growth projection advice that proved to be so far off the mark that Council committed itself to building wastewater plants that are well beyond our needs for 40 years or more out.

Those 2006 projection should have been treated with scepticism - my questioning of the figures at the first meeting I attended in 2007 was heaped with considerable scorn by all concerned - our people had the same rosy coloured outlook as those who invested in South Canterbury Finance, and acted accordingly.

Berl Economics came aboard when the University was finally dumped in 2008, and immediately moved the growth projections down to a more reasonable level, but again the basis on which they have calculated current growth rate predictions to arrive at some 2,100 dwellings over the next 15 years needed to be questioned.

To quote from the District Growth Projection paper presented to the 8 December Council Meeting,

"The projections cannot be revised as such as they are an expert assessment of the most likely future growth. The decision being sought is whether to use these projections to inform future Council decisions, particularly to inform the 2012-2022 Ten Year Plan processes".

Again our Council is sadled with advice that over-rides the wisdom of its own members, or at least that of the Mayor, who questioned the growth rate proposed. He indicated that he had spoken to several developers and others familiar with growth on the ground, rather than in the hallowed halls of Wellington, and they had indicated that there was nothing on the horizon that indicated any chance of  the projections proposed being achieved.

He is right - the rate recommendations should have been thrown out, but instead they were adopted, as recommended by staff, and now they will be used to develop the ten-year plan. Ratepayers need to understand the substantial influence that these projections can have on rates as they feed into capital works planning.

I guess plenty of other councils are facing the same problem - the crystal ball will always remain opaque, but perhaps councillors should be prepared to more often follow their instincts, or at least leaven "expert" advice in order to avoid any more wastewater debacles.

 

Thursday
Dec092010

Mayor's Quip to Councillor!

Overheard during the meeting on 8 December :

"Oh, so you are awake".

Choice eh!

 

 

Thursday
Dec092010

Cycleway (1)

Various interested groups made their pitch for Council funding to the Thames to Kopu addition to the proposed Kopu to Waihi Cycleway at the 8 December Council Meeting. The basis of the pitch was apparently that TCDC should be prepared to match the indicated Matamata-Piako contribution of $500,000.

This thoroughly laudable project, is probably supportable except for two important factors:

  •   will wards other than Thames be prepared to support what many see as a purely Thames  venture - the cost may be un-sustainable if Thames rate-payers are saddled with the entire cost,  and:
  •   has the need for a dedicated bridge on the Kaueranga River been brought into the equation?

Transit New Zealand estimated the cost of such a bridge at over $1m. and have adamantly refused to date to provide any central Government funding for the purpose.

The need for a dedicated bridge is beyond question - proposed increased numbers of mussel and timber trucks, along with all the other traffic make the existing combined bridge just too dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists to use as a regular cycleway.

Council devolved into a "public excluded" workshop later in the day to discuss the matter behind closed doors with Hauraki Mayor John Tregidga who chairs the cycleway committee. One has to ask as to why these talks needed to be behind a veil of secrecy, and hope that Council is not rail-roaded into accepting an ill-thought out proposal where $500,000 may turn out to be just the "down payment".

 

Thursday
Dec092010

Boat Ramp Fees (2)

As anticipated, and following what was clearly a "closed shop" workshop decision, Council resolved at its meeting on 8 December to "suspend enforcement" of Boat ramp Charges introduced after the last round of  LTCCP consultation, until 30 June 2011. The clear intention to permanently reverse the decision at that time was signaled.

The decision raised more questions than it answered, in particular in regard to how the loss of revenue would be balanced in the books. Finance Controller, Steve Baker asked the question , but did not get an answer, so presumably the matter is left to community boards, and at some point the $720,000 cost will need to allocated in some way through rates, or savings made elsewhere.

Interestingly, tickets will continue to be sold to the unaware, presumably from outside the District. Seems that this may raise a question of false pretenses, but presumably this has been well thought through by those who have instituted this action.

Cr. Wyn Hoadley quite rightly objected to an ill-conceived attempt by Cr. McLean to extend the "non-enforcement" by the appointed officers to WOF's and Registration - not something she could possibly approve as a officer of the Court!

Expect paying ramp users at Sugar Loaf, Waikawau and Wangamata to demand similar treatment, or equivalent concessions, in regard to their ramps when this decison is finally put in place.

Non-boat owner rate-payers will in due course pick up their share of the subsidy that effectively now applies to the operation of Council owned boat ramps through their rates - not the most progressive decision for a Council to have taken at the outset of its term, but no doubt campaign promises need be kept to save face for all concerned.

 

Sunday
Dec052010

Boat Ramp Fees (1)

The agenda for the Council meeting of 8 December was released at 2pm on Friday 3 December - two days later than legally required to be made public. No explanation was given.

Item 2.6 on the agenda contains a recommendation from staff that enforcement of the Boat launching  (Parking?) fees should be suspended from 12 December until 30 June 2011. This is obviously in response to the demands of certain Eastern councillors who had the removal of these fees as an integral part of their election platform.

What ratepayers need to know is that the report that accompanies the recommendation contains detailed background information as to how the fees were introduced through the LTCCP consultation process, and that it was one of many measures taken to redress the financial shortfall that Council was facing. 940 responses were received to the specific question regarding Ramp Fees - 541 were in favour. Councillors followed an intricate process in arriving at its decision which was based on the need to recover costs of operating the ramps amounting to over $720,000 in the current year, together with the over $100,000 capital cost of upgrading the Matarangi ramp.

Note also that the large number of the private boat ramp users at Waikawau on the Western side of Peninsula are required to pay either an annual, or per launch fee equivalent to the fee adopted through the LTCCP. Note also the specific fee arrangements that apply at Whangamata, and at Sugarloaf, Coromandel. So it is also a fairness issue with every non-boat owning ratepayer now being expected to subsidise those who wish to launch at every other Council owned ramp in the District, should this recommendation be adopted.

Thames and other councillors need to think very seriously before being "rail-roaded" into acceptance of this recommendation.  It is clearly aimed at leading to permanent suspension after the 30 June deadline, and this will certainly require further public consultation under the LGA, or adoption of an "inconsistent" decision, as indeed is the current "temporary" recommendation.

Reversal of the policy in the face of self-interested defiance by certain rogue elements within the boating community hardly constitutes strong leadership. If this represents the manner in which this Council intends to proceed, then expect further minority rate and fee revolts as time goes on.  

Monday
Nov292010

About This Blog

This blog is designed to encourage comment on matters of interest concerning the Thames Coromandel District Council and is moderated by a former councillor.

It is intended that the primary focus will be on financial and governance issues because of the absence of any detailed attention to these matters through the Hauraki Herald - a Fairfax publication that is the only real newspaper covering the Peninsula.  Local radio news lacks impact and resources, and the community news-sheets are nothing more than mouthpieces for various resident and ratepayer groups, that are generally only concerned about parochial local issues. The boat ramp fee issue is a good example. (see recent post on this matter) Ironically, Thames gets relatively little coverage of important local issues through its only newspaper.

Reporters commonly fall victim to the age old trick when "public excluded" items are run early in the agenda with the clear intention that media will get bored, and go back to the office. If you find this practice surprising, don't be - it happens all the time.  Only one media rep. - from Big Valley Radio (FM 90.8) defies this intention and hangs around, often to the chagrin of staff and councillors alike. Hang in there Robert!

I intend to pick up on some issues from meeting agenda, together with the minuted decisions.  We will of course be unable to see the increasing "public excluded" content of meetings, but I invite any reader to bring matters to my attention that may need to see the light of day. Please use billbarc@ihug.co.nz, or phone/fax 07 8688 138 to contact me direct about any concerns. Naturally, total annonimity is assured, but I must be in a position to verify information before posting it.

I don't guarantee total absence of bias - that is impossible, but I will attempt to give light to issues that do effect our lives, while ensuring accuracy to the greatest possible degree. The level of Council rates that we are obliged to accept will clearly be a major focus, particularly in the light of bold statements made during the campaign. Comments are invited, and encouraged. An occasional stoush, as I have invited over my current post on fluoridation can only throw light on the otherwise opaque.

Finally, I retain the right to moderate commentary - please stay within the normal bounds of propriety, and avoid abusive or defamatory statements.

Friday
Nov262010

Wastewater

Readers will be aware of the long and often acrimonious campaign waged during the previous council to reverse the illogical and ill-conceived 2003 motion to institute district wide uniform charging for wastewater, well before the Eastern seaboard plants had been properly costed.

Staff provided information to a recent Council workshop on the issue that may have reflected their own particular bias that has been evident since the outset of the discussion in 2008. Comparisons with transport and roading were made that are in my view totally inappropriate, and the precursor to an attempt to extend “One District” charging to water, to the utter disadvantage of ratepayers outside of Tairua-Pauanui where a substantial commitment to a new water scheme is pending. 

New Board and Council members should thoroughly familiarise themselves with this issue, so that they can undertstand the reasoning behind the 30 June 2010 majority decision to review wastewater charging.

By way of a brief background, the decision to adopt “One District” charging for wastewater was made in 2003 on the basis that the cost of the new schemes would be no greater than $26.6m. But by the time the actual business case was completed in 2005, a cost of $62.5m was indicated – later increasing to over $90m. This was due mainly to additional peripheral works resulting from conditions imposed by the Environment Court following appeals lodged by affected Eastern ward ratepayers.

Council at the time should have had regard to the provisions of the LGA that require further consultation when such significant cost "blow-outs" become evident, but failed to do so, relying instead on the LTCCP consultation as compliance with the requirement. The resulting charges – amongst the highest in the entire country, were subsequently imposed on Thames and other ratepayers not connected to the new schemes on the basis of  “unaffordability”. How fair was that?

The “One District” mantra had taken root, and in the words of a former County Chairman, created a festering sore that would remain until “area of benefit” charging was re-instituted. I, along with many others believe that this decision did more to create an East / West divide than any other taken since the advent of the District Council.

By June this year, a coalition of five councillors forced the Review over the strong objection of the then Mayor, and other Eastern councillors. This overdue review decision was highly significant being separated from the 2012 triennial Review of Finance and Revenue, where it would have been lost amongst all the other less significant revenue decisions. This is clearly where staff, and previous Eastern seaboard councillors would have preferred to see the issue consigned.

A review is even more timely because of the sudden admission by Council staff earlier this year that it is perfectly feasible, as I had long maintained, to establish individual operating costs for each of the ten Council owned wastewater plants, and thus institute separate area of benefit charges for those connected to each plant.

The Report that is  required as a result of the 30 June 2010 decision is due back in Council on 8 December. Watch this space to see what evolves. One thing is certain - the issue will not go away;  failure to act now to ensure a fairer outcome will ensure it's return in the 2013 election campaign.

 

Friday
Nov262010

TUGPRA

A major concern held over from the previous Board and Council relates to the Thames Urban General Purposes Reserve Account or TUGPRA as it is known. If Thames members are not vigilant, they will lose control of this account in the face of envy and lack of concern for the rights of Thames ratepayers demonstrated in the past by other councillors.

The account has its origins way back in the 1800’s when central government settled   endowment property for the benefit of small councils like Thames that were facing huge demands with little rate income.  This fund was augmented by proceeds from the sale of milk treatment plant, the abattoir and power company shares. To cut the story short, the properties, or what remains of them – mainly in the Te Aroha area currently bring in some $400,000 mainly as the result of recent re-valuations on 20 year dairy farm leases.

Various rules have been imposed over the years on the use of this income, and the capital reserve that has resulted from revenue residue. The previous Board demanded details of expenditure over the years so that it could make rational decisions about the use of the fund, particularly in regard to substantial current and future commitments to the re-building of the swimming pool, and to meet the demand for better sports facilities.

The more the Board demanded such a report, the more murky the matter became, particularly following the production of a totally indequate and opaque income and expenditure statement in 2008. In addition, there had been inconsistent decisions regarding the use of the fund to undertake major purchases and repairs of buildings, including the RSA building over the years. There seems little doubt that the fund was used for purposes other that originally intended during the period when it was under the control of a Commissioner during the 1930's.

Of even greater concern, was the way in which the fund was used by a previous Board to subsidize local rates through contributions to Parks & Reserves. This was supposed to have been a one off, but as often happens, it became set in place in budgets for succeeding years. When the last Board found out about this it instructed staff to implement weaning off this subsidy over a three year period with of course an adverse, but manageable effect on rates. This instruction was never carried out.

The Board instructed staff at the beginning of 2010 to undertake a full review of all relevant documentation, and report back ASAP. It is understood that records were found to be severely deficient or non-existent. Nevertheless, we were informed around June that the report was extensive, and informative, but it was never presented to the board despite repeated requests. It apparently languished because it was regarded as “controversial”.

The Board was informed at its inaugural meeting on 15 November that the report had been sent back to the Council Planning Manager for re-writing. Further, the Board was advised that the re-written report would be sent directly to Council rather than the Board that had requested it. It should be of  considerable concern that what should have a straightforward account of what happened to this fund over the years has been handled in this manner.

It is critically important for Thames ratepayers interests in this fund are protected, and that staff are held to account for the management of the fund over the years. We will watch with great interest to see what happens should the report finally be tabled at the 8 December Council meeting.

Friday
Nov262010

Fluoridation

Another attempt appears to be under way to remove fluoridation from the Thames water supply. A public meeting was called recently apparently in order to promulgate information designed to create fear and loathing of the practice amongst people, many of whom may be unaware of the reasons why most water supplies in this country were originally fluoridated.

People who are behind this move may be well intentioned, and sincerely believe the information that they are presenting - most of which has been floating around the internet since Adam was a boy, but which has been repeatedly refuted by reputable science. The reason that it gains traction every few years is hard to fathom, but often appears linked to conspiratorial fear of mass poisoning by a malign government. See "The Fluoride Wars" by R. Allan Freeze and J.H. Lehr (2009) for a contemporary review of a wide range of literature on the subject.  Also HTTP://dcscience.net - website of Prof. David Colquhoun of University College London for some excellent de-bunking of the anti-fluoride arguments.

Pro-fluoride advocates have been slow to defend the practice, often in the belief that somehow common sense will magically prevail. My experience has been to the contrary, having spent seven years while Chief Executive of a Darwin health board servicing Aboriginal communities, and endeavouring to combat extraordinary levels of child caries. The connexion between rotten infant teeth (Coke and white bread?), and the subsequent levels of adult renal and other related disease as high as anywhere in the world, was well established. Attempts to introduce fluorocylicic acid (exactly as used in Thames) into community water supplies that were entirely devoid of the element - even more so than New Zealand, were strongly opposed by the NT Health Department, mainly  on cost grounds. Paradoxically, the same Department supported fluoridation for the mainly white population of Darwin, while deploring the huge and increasing cost of dialysis treatment for hundreds of Aboriginal patients.

It is specious for anti campaigners to claim that this can all be overcome by encouraging the use of fluoride toothpaste, or tablets - a suggestion that denies socio-economic factors inherent in the failure of such simplistic solutions. Further, mass medication arguments look pretty thin when proponents are reminded of the age old mass medication inherent in the iodizing of salt. Never mind the the folic acid and bread argument.

Rate-payers are urged to follow the predicable emotionally charged anti-fluoride campaign closely and stand ready to defend fluoride in our water supply. I have no doubt that councillors will be targeted with a view to supporting a referendum on the matter - a thoroughly commendable idea just as long as the anti-fluoride campaigners are not permitted to spread their message to the exclusion of all else through apathy on the part of those in the pro-fluoride camp, who in the main say little.

 

 

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