Districts push to merge

Costs unclear

WALT DICKSON
Last updated 11:15 28/11/2012
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The three Wairarapa district councils are pushing ahead with a planned merger even though it could prove more costly to ratepayers than other options.

Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa district councils voted last week to approve a "preferred" future governance option, namely a unitary authority separate from Wellington. It will now go out for public consultation.

Under the plan there would be a single Wairarapa council with an elected mayor, 12 councillors and five community boards. The authority would take on all present regional council roles.

Just how a new combined Wairarapa council would impact on ratepayers is unclear, with the architects of the proposal saying that costing and pricing structures can only be determined once the new governance structure is in place.

Under the Wellington Review Panel Report (Palmer Report) - which recommends a "super" council for the Wellington region - rates would be frozen for three years.

The three Wairarapa councils are fundamentally opposed to the Palmer Report, believing it to be an "Auckland-style super-city" where the big decisions concerning Wairarapa would be made from a largely metropolitan point of view.

All three councils met individually on Friday endorsing the 11 recommendations put to them by the Wairarapa Governance Review Working Party. Of Wairarapa's 27 elected members only one voted against the recommendations.

A report commissioned earlier this year said there would be significant savings through a merger of the three councils. However, those savings are not enough to off-set the considerable subsidy given by Greater Wellington Regional Council (GW) of around $11 million.

The Working Party is suspicious of that figure, which only four years ago was $4.5 million. A written request to GW provided limited explanation for the increase, says the Working Party.

Speaking at a media briefing on Monday, South Wairarapa mayor Adrienne Staples said the "subsidy" was a grey area and misleading. It was not known if the same level of service currently provided by GW would be necessary under the proposed model. Nor did it take into account the savings to be made by amalgamating the three councils, she said.

Whether a combined Wairarapa council could absorb all the necessary costs which can be attributed to the subsidy was unclear.

"There is absolutely no guarantee about what will happen to rates," she said.

Equally there was no guarantee that the current subsidy would continue in a super-city where Wairarapa had only one vote.

The question that Wairarapa people should be asking, Mrs Staples said, was "should Wairarapa give up its grass roots democracy, right to self-determination and control, or give that away on the assumption that a new and different Wellington council will continue to subsidise it."

Hayes supports merger

Wairarapa MP John Hayes has given his full support to a Wairarapa unitary authority.

Mr Hayes says the Wairarapa Governance Review Working Party has done a "fantastic job".

The argument that Wairarapa cannot afford to run a Unitary Authority based on the current $11 million Greater Wellington (GW) subsidy is a valid one, Mr Hayes says but he doubts the validity of the figure.

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Under all options proposed by the Palmer Report, the GW authority will disappear, he says, and there is no guarantee a new body would continue a cross subsidy.

Mr Hayes says comparisons between Wairarapa and other unitary authorities suggests a Wairarapa Unitary Authority can be run more cheaply than at present.

"One council organisation must be cheaper than four," he says. See page 11 - From the House.

Unitary Authority logical thing to do - McPhee

Wairarapa's sole representative on the Greater Wellington Regional Council, Gary McPhee, says the proposed Wairarapa unitary authority is the "way to go".

Mr McPhee told Wairarapa News that his position makes him look like a "Judas" within GW's elected members however his priority is "what is best for Wairarapa".

"A unitary authority is the best way to protect our (Wairarapa) interests - it is the logical thing to do."

Mr McPhee says he has only recently come on board. He told GW chairwoman Fran Wilde of his position on Sunday.

He says he has spoken to other territorial authorities such as Gisborne and Tasman and is satisfied that Wairarapa is best served by going it alone.

As mayor of Carterton Mr McPhee was critical of GW. Since becoming a GW councillor in 2010 he has praised the work of the organisation in Wairarapa.

NEXT STEPS FOR WAIRARAPA:

1. Engage with communities of interest and Wellington councils on issues raised;

2. Formally consult on the preferred option;

3. Explore future funding/ provision of strategic regional services of mutual importance - with Wellington councils;

4. Develop application for change to Local Government Commission - enactment of LGA 2002 Amendment Bill expected before Christmas.

- Wairarapa News

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