Muddy Waters

6 April 2020

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.  The was my first thought when I saw the plan Rotorua Lakes Council staff put forward for the post-COVID-19 recovery. 

A section looking at “Building our responses” highlighted firstly a targeted rates deferral rather than a reduction and, secondly, a “recommencement” of existing projects. 

Although a cut seemed out of the question, I had in the back of my mind as I read this “Can you do both – defer rates and start up already costly projects?”

It seems the answer to that question is a resounding “no”.  “Resounding” because most of the councillors at the council’s extraordinary meeting on Friday 3 April voted for the re-boot waka to start leaving the lakefront without any immediate relief in sight for ratepayers or those in economically challenged neighbourhoods in Rotorua. 

I know this only because I managed to see the recorded, and probably edited, version of the meeting at the weekend after it was put up on 4 April.  Technical difficulties meant the public meeting of the council’s meeting held at 9.30 am was unable to be streamed live.

Questions remained about how and why this meeting couldn’t be seen live by the public, given its extreme importance to how the city and its people emerge from the pandemic and the size of the council’s staff in communication and the resources available to them.

 

Delegation or cop out

The meeting started with councillors agreeing to delegate all the council functions to Chief Executive Geoff Williams for at least a month.  This is somewhat like the New Zealand Government giving the ability to make important decisions on the country’s behalf to a top public servant. 

The government has assumed wide-reaching powers – people driving cars can be stopped for no other reason than driving cars – a counter-balance was put in place in the form of a special select committee under the Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges as chair.

Councillor Reynold Macpherson, the leader of the ratepayers’ group, resoundingly opposed to the council’s current economic direction, was, apparently, clearly not an option to lead our rebuild committee.

“I am puzzled as to why our strategy here takes a very different view (to that of the government/parliament) and is only talking about putting off rates payments.”

Top top-table management team of Mayor Steve Chadwick and Deputy Mayor Dave Donaldson deferred, referring instead to a statement by Local Government New Zealand, which said: “Simply reducing spending would mean adding people to benefit queues…”

The main thrust of the report, accepted by the majority of councillors at the meeting, was around helping to rebuild the business sector and encouraging investment and innovative strategies for those sectors most-impacted.

The wording of some of the key strategies agreed upon contains the kind of sentiment that allows virtually anything to go, such as:

“Work with business leaders to craft innovative strategies for impacted sectors”, and

“Position Rotorua as leading the resurgence of tourism and wood processing”.

Few would disagree with the sentiments expressed but they remain just that – warm fuzzies.  What will this mean in terms of implementation?  What it will probably (hopefully not but probably) mean is that a flurry of committees will be established to meet with business interests already weighed down with merely surviving. 

A council responding limply to the worst impacts – economically and socially - is largely impotent.

Businesses are ratepayers too.  Householders are ratepayers who can and will support those businesses in the city.

 

Stuggling suburbs face locality plan

Away from business and the economy, but not necessarily divided from it, suburbs where the personal impact will be felt most by our most vulnerable people.  The recovery plan included in its key strategy this last point:

“Implement locality plans to connect our communities and transform our City”.

Long-standing councillor Trevor Maxwell asked at the council meeting he supported the recovery plan but raised a question pointing to social impacts.

He supported the points about supporting the tourism and wood processing sectors, the hospitality and retail area – “it’s hurting very much in our hometown here in these very challenging times.”

“I also heard you mention some of our suburbs, like Western Heights, Selwyn Heights, Owhata, Ngongotaha.”

He asked Strategy Manager Jean Paul Gaston (JP), who presented the recovery report and its recommendations, about the thinking behind what was planned for bringing those already struggling suburbs back from the worst impacts.

Mayor Steve Chadwick hesitated, saying “that is what is in our housing plan, that was (previously) referred to as our the ‘locality plan’.”  She then asked “JP” if he had anything to add.

“Not really,” he said. “We were taking a wider view of how we can look at what communities might want (in order) to assist in regeneration and support those areas.  So obviously we’ve done a lot on the playground developments and key park developments but obviously it’s got to wider into how shopping centres operate, what is the centres of those communities and how do we build them to be effective.”

He said it required a much wider discussion which “was probably not worth doing here but I can come back to talk to Councillor Maxwell and others as the housing strategy and the definition of what we mean by those locality plans is shaped up”.

The coming increases in rates was not discussed in terms of how such higher costs for landlords owning the many rentals in those “localities” will likely pass extra costs on to already-struggling tenants was not mentioned.

 

Kia kaha Phil

It was about this time that I wondered what Phil Campbell would have made of all this.  Phil was the long-time editor of the Rotorua Review, the now defunct community newspaper from the Fairfax stable of communities.  Phil hated flim flam and other stalling devices favoured by politicians. 

Phil was awarded the QSM in 2013 for services to sports and journalism.  He sadly died on 25 March 2020, and his observations on the council’s reaction to current crisis – potentially the biggest story in our lifetimes – will be sadly missed.

 

CLARIFICATION: The Mud asked a number of questions about the meeting on Friday 3 April and did receive a reply by midday Monday at 9 am 6 April.  Six hours after The Mud article was posted, the council released information at 6.15 pm on Monday 6 April that it also "approved in the private part of the meeting on Friday a rates deferral option for the May 2020 rates instalment as part of immediate action to cushion the impact of COVID-19. It will be targeted at residential ratepayers and businesses most affected and who meet the criteria".

Council COVID-19 plan lacks grunt

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