Comment:

Last week your council announced phase one of a two-phase recovery plan for our city so we can support and rebuild Hamilton after Covid-19.

Phase one provided $1 million for social services, authorised early payments to suppliers, approved consent fees relief and refunds and signed off on development contributions relief and support for small to medium size businesses.

We also agreed to fund an emergency response effort and to waive rent for community groups, sports clubs and other businesses until June 2020.

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All up the total phase-one package is costed at $3.4 million, aimed at supporting vital community organisations and providing immediate hardship relief.

But that's just the start of what will be needed to help our city recover from the economic and social impacts of the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in. We know, and the Government knows, that the potential impacts of Covid-19 will be savage with nearly every single business and family impacted in some way.

So I want to reassure you that your council is doing everything it possibly can to address short-term needs for targeted, social assistance to people who need it most, while planning on how best to support and rebuild our city long-term.

Some people are already asking for a rates freeze. Believe me, I hear you. I know you are hurting. My family, my daughters, my mother and my neighbours … none of us are immune to what is happening. Some close to me have already lost jobs or have businesses at risk.

And while some people want rates freezes, others are calling just as loudly for councils – including ours – to do exactly the opposite. They know that without revenue from rates, councils simply cannot provide the essential services that keep towns and cities running.

Nor could we play any serious role in kick-starting the projects our city will desperately need to get our economy back on track and our people back into what will be needed most – jobs.

Those people point to lessons of the past when it was clear that cutting spending made things demonstrably worse. They are asking councils to invest more – not less – on those initiatives that will help stimulate the economy, keep and create jobs and keep food on tables.

Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate. Photo / Hamilton City Council
Hamilton mayor Paula Southgate. Photo / Hamilton City Council

At this stage, 10 days into lockdown, a range of options are being actively worked on. We've agreed to phase one of a recovery package. But already your council has done a huge amount of work on phase two to ensure our city can leverage every single opportunity on offer.

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I know Hamilton City is well placed terms of government priorities. We already have a number of large projects ready to go that, with a kick-start, will stimulate economic activity.

We're already working hard with neighbouring councils, iwi, and regional business agencies to make sure that, as a region, we are sending very clear messages to Wellington about our regional priorities.

But while we are working as fast as we can, I'm asking you to be patient and let us work through the implications of ALL of the options in front of us.

Rates
In terms of rates, we've already extended the city's own rates rebate scheme. Hamilton City Council is one of few councils that already offers additional assistance to low income earners. The package your council has already approved will directly help 3000 of our most vulnerable householders.

We have also committed to looking at a whole range of other rating options. But before making a decision, we need to clearly understand what any change will mean.

It's not just a case of moving the numbers around, and we can't and shouldn't just respond to the loudest voices in the room. There are a huge range of factors we can, and must, consider before we seek feedback, finalise our Annual Plan in May and set our rates for the coming year. That's what any responsible council would do.

We need to factor in things like council's financial position, including our debt, our current debt limits and our ability to balance our books. We need to consider the impact of any change on ratepayers including those who may be impacted hardest, perhaps not now, but in the longer term.

We must also consider our future ability to fund important things in the future.

Finally, we need to think about what the impact of changing our rates might mean for the long-term economic health of our city. What other alternatives can and should we be considering? These are all questions we are already working on with options coming back to elected members soon.

In these uncertain times, one thing is certain. The decisions we make now, on your behalf, will impact on Hamiltonians, both in the short-term but also for the months and years ahead. I do not want to lead a council that makes ill-considered and rushed calls which may impact poorly on you, your children or your grandchildren down the track.

Infrastructure projects

At the same time, your council is pushing incredibly hard – and incredibly fast – to make sure Hamilton and the wider region is at the top of the queue for potential government support.

On Tuesday the Government announced it will support infrastructure projects that are 'shovel-ready'; meaning they are ready to go as soon as the construction industry returns to normal. This will be in addition to the $12 billion upgrade programme announced recently and existing Provincial Growth Fund investments.

They're looking to support a pipeline of projects that have public or regional benefit and that, quite simply, create jobs. The longer people are out of work, the harder it will be for households and the city to recover.

In the last five years, our city, alongside our partners across the region, have done huge work to develop a comprehensive framework for development. This work has set us up well for the situation we are now in.

Hamilton City Council announced phase one of a recovery plan last week. Photo / Hamilton City Council
Hamilton City Council announced phase one of a recovery plan last week. Photo / Hamilton City Council

Before the onset of Covid-19, we were already clear on what needs to be developed, where and in what timeframe to ensure Hamilton and the wider Waikato would thrive in the future. That planning has been done in partnership with Government, iwi and other councils. We know, and the Government knows, that a strong Hamilton and a strong Waikato means a stronger, more resilient New Zealand.

The Government has already recognised this and has been working closely with us. In the last six months alone, we've seen major announcements. In October Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised $12m towards a new $73m regional theatre in our central city.

In November Minister Phil Twyford helped open the Rotokauri Transport Hub, which attracted Government investment of $18.5m. We have other multi-modal transport projects now, ready to go, building on this.

In December, the Government announced plans to fund a new Alcohol and Drug Treatment Court here, only the third in the country. And in late February Justice Minister Andrew Little announced the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) will be based in Hamilton.

We all know those investment decisions are not made lightly. With government support, our city is well-placed to withstand this pandemic and to recover socially and economically.

Detailed proposals

However, we're not waiting around to be asked. By last Sunday, Hamilton City Council had already sent three detailed and specific co-funding proposals to Government to consider. More proposals will go next week.

We're formally seeking government support to kick-start public transport, rail and bus interchange projects in our city as well as extending walking and cycling options. These projects will allow us to prioritise key bus routes, extend our cycling network and provide better walking routes. Potentially it may also lay the foundation for an urban rail system between Hamilton and the towns and communities that surround us.

We've asked for specific government support for investment in transport (not just roads) and three waters (water, wastewater, stormwater) infrastructure around Ruakura so we can bring forward commercial and residential development.

We have sought support for projects like the Southern Links transport network and three waters infrastructure including a new wastewater plant for the south of the city and beyond. This would quickly accelerate private development already underway around the Peacocke/Hamilton Airport/Cambridge area – potentially addressing some of challenges we face in terms of affordable housing.

In addition to these Hamilton-centric projects, we've worked with nearby councils to identify other regional initiatives that we're asking Wellington to support.

They include work on the Ohinewai-Huntly-Taupiri corridor, particularly around transport, three waters and public space to underpin large commercial development.

We have water and transport projects ready to go on the Rotokauri-Ngaruawahia corridor which would allow large-scale housing development.

We are continuing to push for government support to help us scope up and build much more resilient and smarter three waters infrastructure to improve our water, wastewater and stormwater capabilities across Hamilton City, Waipa and Waikato districts. We have supported the completion of the Cambridge to Piarere section of the Waikato Expressway.

One-off projects

In addition to this, our council is working to identify some one-off projects it could, with financing help, stand up quickly.

Many were already planned for the city so this is about fast-tracking. They include new sports fields across growth areas of Hamilton, work on the Rototuna Town Centre, and very specific transport-related and connectivity projects linked to the new community being developed at Peacocke. We also have some ideas about potential environmental initiatives.

I make no apology for pushing hard to get phase one of the recovery package across the line and for putting pressure on to scope up phase two. I want to thank Hamilton City councillors for unanimously supporting the programme and for considering both the economic and the social impacts on our city.

I also want to assure Hamiltonians that, despite the tight timeframes we are working to, we remain very aware of other issues that are important to people in our city. Yes, we want to prioritise projects and programmes that meet the Government's key objective of creating jobs. But projects must also provide the best opportunities for environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing for our people.

You can also be confident that your elected members are absolutely united in wanting what is best for our city. Making the best decisions will take time so please bear with us as we work through all the options. We are doing absolutely everything we can to get the very best outcomes for our city, socially and economically.

Meanwhile council staff are working hard to continue bringing you essential services and to keep the city running. I want to thank staff for their efforts.

While we are all in this together, there is only one thing I ask of you. For Hamilton's sake and for the country's sake, let's simply do what is being asked of all of us.

Please – stay at home.

The longer we keep people out of work, the longer our businesses are hampered, the longer our social connections are severed, the harder it will be for our city to recover socially and economically.

Let's do this lockdown once and do it properly. For the sake of your city, your friends and your family, let's all do what's right.

Stay home.