Weekly column by Kāpiti mayor K Gurunathan
Last week, councillors had a pleasant dinner evening at the Surfer's Mistress in Paraparaumu Beach. The lull precedes the kick-off this week to a very demanding five months of work as we go through the process to land our 20-year Long Term Plan by June.
Given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we face a tremendous challenge to deliver a plan that is resilient and financially sustainable. In recent months, when the chief executive and I have attended local government meetings, we have repeatedly heard the same concerns from other mayors and chief executives. Concerns around huge, unprecedented workloads, with staff facing burnout and elected members struggling to keep up. The impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated further by a second factor in the form of Government-initiated reforms.
So on December 10, I took the step of communicating my growing concern by writing to the Auditor-General. In particular, given the disruption posed by the pandemic, the Government requirement for councils to provide responses to the three waters reform.
The Government's RFI on this posed some 1300 questions to staff! I told the AG this was not only unfair but also unreasonable.
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"I believe that there is a strong and substantial case for a legislative change to the requirement to adopt a new Long Term Plan by 1 July 2021, particularly given the local government sector is likely to produce an amendment to the LTP approximately 18 months after adoption, to reflect sector-wide changes to their three water's assets," noted my letter.
This is a fair call given the financial cost to councils and their communities to develop, review and approve a strategic document for significant council assets, only to be subject to imminent change. This can only be described as negligent, misleading and wasteful to our ratepayers.
In a well considered response, dated January 10, the AG basically pointed out that any changes to the relevant legislation was a policy decision outside the responsibility of his office. And there were no signals for such change. The AG recognised the significant demands made by the three waters and resource management reforms, and the ongoing climate change response. These were managed by Internal Affairs Department the lead agency on local government. While the AG's office was unable to change the deadlines for delivery of the LTP, I was reminded it was doing a range of things to assist councils in the preparation of the documents.
The blunt message is, I suppose, we just need to suck it up and get on with the task at hand. We are basically setting the district's roadmap for the next 20 years. I realise that anything more than five years ahead increasingly becomes a crystal ball-gazing exercise, especially in the face of the mutating Covid-19 virus and the deeper climate change existential challenges.
It is no different from councils being asked to frame the development of our LTP knowing that the three waters reform is designed to extract a significant part of our assets and the community debt associated with it out of the new LTP, and we are required to pretend it's a business-as-usual process.
So from now till the end of June, elected members will consider all the issues facing the district and communities, their concerns and priorities, our legal requirements in doing these, and the information and recommendations presented to us. The proposed plan will be presented to our communities through a consultation process for feedback. This will include a submission process and a hearing. The feedback will be considered and decisions made to finalise the LTP by adoption and setting of the rates.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge the tremendous work council staff have already done and will continue to do to provide elected members with information to enable good decisions. In particular, the work of the council's engine room, the finance team, which had to work through the Christmas break to deliver while also working to respond to the 1300 questions required by the Government to progress their three waters reform. Thank you.