Extra full council meeting (19 February)

The full council met on 19 February 2015. This meeting was not part of the normal cycle of full council meetings as it was dedicated to the long term plan (LTP) for 2015-25 and associated consultation document. Cr Mirfin submitted his apologies, otherwise all councillors were present.

The agenda considered the following items: (1) CEO briefing, (2) Waimea community dam, (3) rates remissions policy review, (4) commercial subcommittee terms of reference, (5) maori consultation processes, (6) other supporting documents for the LTP.

This meeting was then followed by a workshop on the content and layout of the consultation document.

In relation to the full council meeting the main areas of interest for me were the first three items and I intend to concentrate on these items.

The maori consultation process was confirmed, as was the publication of supporting documents for the LTP. Although I continue to have issues with a number of spending proposals in these documents (eg, William Street traffic lights proposal costing $1 million, and the timing of storm water work in the Richmond South area – more urgency is required).

CEO briefing

Council were given a brief update on the following items:

  • Finance: For the 6 month period, ended 31 December 2014, council produced an accounting adjusted surplus of $2.6 million (after adjusting for capital income, vested assets, development contributions and interest rate swap revaluations) against budget. Interestingly, revaluation of interest rate swaps (which total $147.78 million) provided an accounting loss of $1.8 million. By way of background, interest rate swaps are a hedge against higher interest rates (a bit like fixing your mortgage). This month our swap rate was higher than the market. Which is surprising given our average interest rate for swaps is 5.288%. So, if we had sold our interest rate swaps back to the bank at the current market rate this month, we would have made a loss. Conversely, if our swap rate is lower than the market then we would make a theoretical gain, although we would have to refinance our debt at higher rate. This fluctuation does not cost council any cash, as we are not selling them (although it might be a good time to buy more swaps, if we were in the market) – rather its done for accounting purposes, which we are required to report on. It’s likely that as current interest rates hold up (above our swap rate) council will continue to build up an accounting loss, until such time as the market interest rate trends back up.
  • Jackett Island: the claim for future costs has been settled by agreement ending the environment court proceedings – the insurers are managing any civil claim.
  • Building control: last year the IANZ accreditation audit identified an issue with TDC’s tracking system for responding to building consents approaching the 20 day limit. In the last month, no building consent application exceeded the 20 day limit, the backlog had been reduced, and compliance was now over 90%.
  • Restructure: A new building control manager (tier three) position had been created which has taken over management of the building compliance function and will operate within the regulatory section of TDC.
  • Port Tarakohe: The mussel industry has made a pricing compliant to the commerce commission alleging TDC is making super profits from its new commercial charges regime. In my opinion, the new weigh bridge and more timely and accurate billing is clearly having an impact on some operations bottom line.
  • Best island access: Several meetings have been held with affected residents on a proposal for council to acquire land for a public road in order to address access issues for those residents.
  • Nelson tourism and economic development agency: Meetings have been held to discuss work plans for both organisations. In my opinion, strategic activities (including more actively supporting the international education sector) and measurable performance outcomes need to be agreed.

The council wage bill

Council staff were also asked to provide information on council’s wage budget (currently round 18% of total expenditure) and how it compares to other authorities. Cr Inglis, Higgins, and myself have been pursuing this issue for sometime.

While there are few unitary councils to make comparisons with, and unitary council functions are broader than district or regional councils, the councils wage bill is still a percentage (or ratio) of its overall cost of performing its functions. If a council has more functions it will have more income and more expenditure, but wage expenditure should still be comparable.

In my opinion, benchmarking the councils operational activities and costs is important. Given unitary councils comprise both district and regional council functions, some detailed analysis separating out those separate functions, could be undertaken with a little effort (with shared services apportioned), to provide direct comparison with district or regional councils.

I understand the local government association (LGA), have on its agenda, the provision of benchmarking tools for council governance. If the government want to see local government costs come down, I would have thought they would have been a keen supporter (and potential funder) of such tools.

Note! As pointed out by one reader, Local authorities must disclose their performance in relation to identified statutory benchmarks (see section 9 of the Local Government (Financial Reporting and Prudence) Regulations 2014). I agree. However, these statutory benchmarks are very different to the type of benchmarking I am suggesting. I am talking about benchmarking “between” councils on information not currently required by statute to be benchmarked. The statutory benchmarks listed in section 10 of the Local Government (Financial Reporting and Prudence) Regulations 2014 are: rates affordability (reg 17), debt affordability (reg 18), balanced budget (reg 19), essential services (reg 20), debt servicing (reg 21), debt control (reg 22), and operations control (reg 23). These benchmarks are generally a high level comparison against quantified limits set by council or statute. For example, comparing the council’s planned rates increase with a quantified limit on rates increases contained in the council’s financial strategy.

I also believe its about time council was subject to an independent organisational review. As a governance body, council should regularly review if the council is operating efficiently. An independent review will either confirm the organisation is right sized and operating efficiently, or make suggestions for improvements.

Either way ratepayers would have greater confidence in the organisation of council and that their money is being spent wisely. Unfortunately, there appears to very little support around the council table (including the mayor) for such a review. Hopefully a wage comparison, might push them towards a much needed review.

Waimea community dam

There were two issues to be considered: (1) a revised structure of the arrangement, and (2) funding of a new private entity.

The suggested re-structure was not a surprise as we had been briefed at an earlier workshop. These days I tend to find the workshops more informative (and useful) than the actual committee meetings (that formally present the staff paper and recommendations).

This is because, much of the debate and councillors positions on the issue, have been worked through at the workshop. This means much of the debate around the table is often making a last argument for not supporting (or supporting) the staff recommendation.

A revised structure

In essence, the proposed arrangements confirmed at the earlier council meeting of 9 December 2014 has changed. At the December meeting it was proposed (and supported by the majority of council) that a CCO would be formed and it would co-ordinate external funding (amongst other tasks). That structure is outlined below.

DamStructure1-2015

Ironically, my opposition to forming a CCO and allowing the irrigators to form their own investment holding company (Waimea Community Dam Ltd, or “WCDL”) has now been taken up by the irrigators. They now proposed a revised structure whereby WCDL secures funding from the Crown and irrigators. This new structure is illustrated below.

DamStructure2-2015

 

This new structure reflects the fact that irrigators will now be the major financial contributors to the dam, as they look to secure funding from the Crown and irrigators.

By way of background, the council’s contribution to a dam is limited to $25 million – made up of urban water ($8 million) and environmental ($14 million), with the remaining $3 million for administration costs. This would suggest that WCDL has to secure the remainder ($50 million) from irrigators and the Crown.

I agree with this structure. Its very similar to what I suggested in my dissenting opinion in December. However, I maintain that a CCO does not yet need to be established, until a decision on whether we proceed with a dam (or not), is decided. If a dam is agreed, then the reasons for forming a CCO need to be considered at that time.

In my opinion, the cost of establishing and maintaining a CCO does not warrant its formation at this time. During the consultation phase on governance formation of a CCO was estimated to cost about $100,000 (plus ongoing costs, like directors fees). Establishing a company also invites tax, accounting, and company compliance costs that a “council” does not need to bother itself with. Council could quite easily enter into contractual negotiations with WCDL directly for the supply of water augmentation services. As it has done with NCC over the delivery of tourism services.

A reason to form a CCO is the benefit of skills and knowledge that directors could provide. However, in this instance, the CCO would not be managing the dam, unlike governance struture 1. Rather, it is a holding company for council investment. Furthermore, management and technical skills would be provided by TDC under contract. So there do not appear to be any benefits at this time in forming a CCO?

Given no government funding for urban or environmental contributions has been forthcoming, there seems little reason to form a CCO at this time. It might be that such funding is not contingent on a CCO being formed? Why jump the gun?

To date, the mayor has made no noise about securing government funding for the environmental contribution, or seeking government to underwrite any cost blow outs for the council’s contribution.

Having looked at a guide on when councils should form a CCO (see http://wellington.govt.nz/~/media/your-council/council-controlled-organisations/files/whatworks.pdf), I could find no compelling case for forming a CCO.

Given assurances during the consultation phase that cost blow outs were unlikely, I would have thought it would have been easy for the government to underwrite any cost blow outs above the $8 million urban water supply contribution. And given the broad public benefit of protecting the environment, the government should have come to the party on the environmental cost. Perhaps its time to write to Nick myself?

Funding

The other issue before council was the provision of “ongoing funding” for WCDL to engage with irrigators and the Crown. The source of this funding was proposed to come from the Waimea Water Augmentation Project surcharge which generates about $81,000 per year. This amount would be given to WCDL in the 2015-16 year.

I proposed loaning these funds (as an amendment to the resolution), rather than just handing them over to WCDL. Cr Canton seconded my motion, but no other councillors supported this change. In my mind, this was a private investment holding vehicle, not a council owned or controlled entity, and council had a duty to protect public funds.

Giving the money as a loan would provide security as a creditor should WCDL prove unsuccessful. Giving WCDL the money, provide no security at all. Further, when questioned, the CEO could see no reason why the funds could not be provided as a loan. Either way, WCDL would obtain funding. Although some councillors raised there own reasons for why it should not be a loaned during the debate.

Rates remissions policy review

At present, the council has a policy that remits rates on properties that have been subject to re-zoning. The policy provides the council a discretion in terms of how long the remission period will last.

To provide certainty (and transparent fairness) to the process it was raised during a workshop whether council should prescribe the length of the remission period. At that workshop it was suggested that a 10 year period be provided, with the last 3 years stepping down the remission towards the payment of the full rates bill. At that meeting other lengths of time were discussed, including 6 and 4 years. Some on council felt there should be no grace period, effectively rescinding the remission policy.

In my mind, a reasonable period of time should be provided. Through no fault of their own, but rather due to council’s actions of rezoning, they are placed in the very awkward financial position they find themselves in. Providing a reasonable period of time enables people to leave their land with dignity and without being pressured to sell for a low price. Alternatively, ratepayers should be given the opportunity to re-engineer their incomes so they can afford to stay or redevelop the land themselves. In my opinion, to do otherwise, only benefits the next purchaser.

The fundamental issue for me, is that council should not be in the business of forcing people off their land and out of their homes. This principle has strong support in the community – as evidenced by the submissions made on the governance and funding options for the proposed Waimea community dam.

This principle also had some support around the council table. Although there are a few councillors who adopt a more extreme utilitarian approach to the issue. That approach reared its head again during this debate.

Essentially the question before council was whether there should be a sunset clause added to the remission of rates on land that has increased in value due to re-zoning.

In such cases, re-zoning can exponentially increase the value of a property based on its new potential value. The Headingly Lane incident was apparently the driver for this remission policy. The increase in rates can be unsustainable for the property owner, and often they are forced to dispose of the land to a property developer or someone who can obtain more income from the land to afford the new rates bill.

Against this, is the need to ensure land is available for development. A key part of the housing shortage (and high values) is the supply of land. Although, whether this is a driver in the Tasman region, is a moot point.

I supported a 10 year period, comprising a 100% remission of the increase in rates for the first 6 years, and a stepped down remission (of 20%) for each of the next 4 years (eg, 6+4 year remission policy). I moved this motion as an amendment to the current policy, supported by Cr Bouillir.

No other councillors supported this motion, as they favoured a shorter period – either: 4+2 years (with the last 2 years remitted at 33%), or 1+3 years.

Cr Ensor questioned why I would support such a long time given the cost to council and given my drive to reduce costs for council. I explained, that my support of a longer remission period (the 6+4 year period) reflected the tension between saving costs and ensuring people were not force out of their homes. I also did not perceive there was any “real” cost to council. The increase in value did not affect the councils costs. In fact, remitting the rate just meant that council did not get an increase in income. Councils costs remained unchanged, whether the land increased in value or not.

On losing this amendment, I made it clear I could not support any shorter period as I considered it unfair and mean spirited, and would prefer council discretion (the current policy) to anything else.

Especially when placed in the context of the Tapu bay issue, where some councillors supported giving a life interest in a holiday bach (or crib if you are from the deep south) to the owner of the bach (that was not that person’s home), rather than enforce the councils policy of removing private bachs from public land, and yet were willing to force people out of their homes within a much shorter period.

On that basis I informed council I would be voting against both shorter remission periods.

Other councillors realising that a no vote on a 4+2 remission period, might force an even shorter period, asked to defer this item to the next full council meeting.

The full council meeting on 5 March will be deciding on the final state of this policy.

Agenda and minutes

The agenda and minutes for this meeting are located at http://www.tasman.govt.nz/council/council-meetings/standing-committees-meetings/full-council-meetings/?path=/EDMS/Public/Meetings/FullCouncil/2015/2015-02-19.

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