The Bay of Plenty Regional Council’s move to collecting its own rates has been met with formal complaints over the use of te reo Māori in communications, lengthy call wait times and other issues.
One ratepayer posted on social media that when she called the council, she was number 297 in the queue, and others are annoyed at 10 per cent late penalty fees which a council boss has since said have been wiped “in many cases”.
However, this was only applied when the instalment was paid in full or an approved payment plan via direct debit was set up..
Council rates revenue for 2023/24 was expected to jump to $91.3 million from $81.7m while rateable properties had increased from 133,436 to 136,110.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council corporate general manager Mat Taylor said four formal complaints were received regarding call wait times, three were in 2022 and one this year. These came in addition to eight other rates-related complaints.
Taylor said the issuing of 10 per cent penalty notifications on November 6 prompted large volumes of calls despite a call-back service and queries being accepted online.
The council’s call centre team was clearing all call-back requests within 24 hours, he said.
On average, the council’s rates for 2023-2024 were $616.36 per property and from September 4, 147,605 invoices were processed and sent out via email and post, with a due date of October 20, 2023.
“Council also communicated extensively across multiple platforms to let people know when to expect their invoice. In instances where post has been returned, or emails bounce back, our team has worked quickly to contact these customers and have their invoice redirected.”
Taylor said the council would act fairly and reasonably when considering applications for the remission of penalties on rates that had not been paid on time.
“In many cases, penalties have been waived.”
Twelve formal complaints had been received since the council introduced its new rates collection process last year.
“These complaints cover a range of different issues such as the use of te reo Māori in rates communications, complaints about having to pay rates, charges applied to certain services, and misunderstandings around the collection process change.”
Taylor said the council’s decision to collect its own rates from July 1, 2022, was made to “increase the visibility and transparency of the services it provides to the community, gain direct control over the end-to-end rating process, and to gain efficiencies in service delivery”.
The decision to invoice rates to be paid by October 20 every year was based on the practicalities of not being able to invoice before July 1 and to avoid a clash with the due dates of the seven local city and district councils within the region.
The council was responsible for looking after the environmental management of the region, including protecting the region’s land, air and water.
The council also responded to pollution events, provided public transport, and took a lead role in animal and plant pest management. Its work was funded by a mix of rates, fees, charges, grants and investment income from Quayside Holdings.
Resident Matt Ellis said he posted on social media that his initial rates invoice did not arrive. He only received the bill with the penalty.
“Now we are sitting in a queue and they will call us back. Hopefully, we can come up with the money because November is a bad time of the year to fork out money.”
His post attracted comments including: “I was 279 in the queue kept ringing back and no change in queue number even hours later” and “I had a direct debit for the rates so I assumed it was just a notice. Surprise surprise, this is another set of rates...”
Papamoa Residents and Ratepayers Association chairman Philip Brown said its biggest concern regarding the regional council was the splitting out of the rates.
“People don’t realise the true total rate and that has been a big concern ... I think it’s time they combined the rates again with one bill so we know exactly what we’re paying.
“Not these two bills at different times ... ”
Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers Association chairman Reynold Macpherson disagreed and said he believed the council had flown under the radar when its rates were combined.
“Nothing is convenient that takes a big a bigger chunk out of your disposable income. The year before last regional rates went up by 14 per cent and no one noticed. The advantage of having them differentiated and getting separate bills is that people will be acutely aware of the increases therefore they’ll ask more questions of the regional council.”
In response to Brown and Macpherson’s concerns, Taylor said the project closing report presented to the council in March 2023, highlighted over a dozen measures of success that were initially set to provide assurance the move to direct rates collection was a positive one.
“The original rationale behind the change to direct invoicing of rates was to increase public awareness of the work we do, and the benefits this work has for the community. Collecting our own rates has successfully increased the public’s awareness of council’s work, transparency of services provided, and direct control over the rating system, rates information, and all related processes.”
The council was unable to provide a detailed breakdown of staff and contractor expenses. Operational costs per the council’s annual report for the 2022/23 financial year is $177.2 million and $185.4m per its 2023/24 annual plan budgeted total operating expenditure.
In March, the council told Local Democracy Reporting collecting its own rates would save an estimated $7.1m over 10 years.
Carmen Hall is a news director for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post, covering business and general news. She has been a Voyager Media Awards winner and a journalist for 25 years.