Funding cut at cost of relations?
Manawatu district will be the loserGRANT MILLER
OPINION: 'Excuse me, sir, where do you live?"
"I'm sorry, that means you'll have to pay a charge to view this exhibition."
Such a conversation may seem a little far-fetched, but the noises coming out of Te Manawa and Palmerston North City Council suggest it could happen.
Te Manawa – the museum, art gallery and science centre, with a revamped national rugby museum based in Palmerston North – will presumably be keen to avoid this scenario because it knows there is a risk it will appear petty.
What seems more likely is that Te Manawa's preference for keeping exhibitions free will require a tweak. It cannot expect more money from the city council, and the Te Manawa Museums Trust cannot post deficits on an ongoing basis. Searching for grants and community fundraising may appeal, but that's been a well-worn path in Manawatu in recent years. The complex may absorb some costs, but the board has signalled this could compromise Te Manawa's ability to be all it should be.
Te Manawa's board will no doubt be pondering whether a change in direction is needed.
In the meantime, we have this thought from acting chief executive Sharon Saxton: "We have thought about re-introducing user charges, and would have to consider that now."
The spat that has arisen from Manawatu District Council cutting $20,000 in funding to Te Manawa shows how fragile neighbourly relations can be. Palmerston North City Council Mayor Jono Naylor certainly didn't hold back on how he viewed the move from the district council. He called it a "slap in the face", said it "smacks of arrogance", and Palmerston North would not feel the need to "bend over backwards" to help Manawatu in other ways. "Frankly, I thought $20,000 was a small amount compared with the benefits Manawatu District people get from having this facility in the city."
The district's funding cut comes at a time when the city is having to pump more money into Te Manawa because of insurance costs.
Manawatu Mayor Margaret Kouvelis has resisted the temptation to talk about things such as lifeguards at Himatangi that the city doesn't help fund. Probably the weakest thing Mrs Kouvelis has said is that "cutting back on our funding doesn't mean that we can't support Te Manawa [in future]".
If it's the right call, there's no need to cloud it with a reference to the future. The council either backs itself, or it doesn't.
In a letter to the editor last week, Manawatu councillor Steve Gibson said the city was wrong about his council not pulling its weight.
He said it was "funny that we have to pay for the regional assets like the Coach House Museum and Manfeild (operational costs) on our own", when Palmerston North expected help to pay for its assets.
The city is of course paying Manfeild more than it is comfortable with through a loan with generous terms. It also seems Manawatu District Council's patience with Manfeild has become thin as its operational grant to the Feilding motorsport and events venue has been shaved by $100,000.
Cr Gibson points out that the city "only has to spend $22 million on roads, while we pay $11m, but we have less than a third of the ratepayers to fund this". Good point. But surely it is all swings and roundabouts. Rural councils spend a lot of money on roads, but they don't need to spend as much on facilities. Palmerston North needs to have assets like Arena Manawatu, the Palmerston North Convention Centre and The Regent on Broadway so that residents of the city, and nearby districts, will find it a worthwhile place to stay or visit.
What the Te Manawa disagreement highlights is that there isn't really an agreed set of principles or formula for deciding how the sharing of funding should work. Manawatu and Palmerston North have a history of getting along OK, but it all feels a bit case-by-case, or ad hoc.
There are many areas of co-operation between Palmerston North and Manawatu: Destination Manawatu, Vision Manawatu, building regulatory services, roading planning and the promotion of a boundary adjustment between the two councils.
Manawatu pays $10,000 a year so that its children can use Palmerston North library services free of charge. Politicians will be careful to avoid letting too much of that unravel.
Manawatu cannot now be under any illusion that the city will wear any more moves to cut its funding. Heading further along this path is sure to invite a significant retaliatory response where the Manawatu district will be the loser.
Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.
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