Beauty project has ugly budget bulge

Last updated 13:00 02/06/2014

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OPINION: Without a doubt the diggers and concrete mixers are creating a lasting legacy alongside the Maitai. A key feature of the long-running "Heart of Nelson" project, which aims to make more of the city's connection to the Haven Port Nelson and waterfront areas, the Maitai Walkway beautification project is looking great.

What's not looking great at all is the huge blowout in the project's cost. The budgeted $2.9 million cost of the project always appeared steep. That this has suddenly shot up by a quarter to an estimated $3.6m is an unacceptable shock.

The issue raises important questions about how well the council is functioning. A key task for council staff is - or ought to be - acting as dedicated guardians of the city's spending, on behalf of all ratepayers.

Keeping councillors - and through them the public - fully informed on how big-ticket projects are tracking is part of that. So, too, is being painstakingly vigilant project managers. We expect them to treat our money even more frugally than if it were their own.

We need to know that the staff involved are capable of, and committed to, getting the best possible deals, tightly controlled contracts and ensuring that contractors are not able to deliver nasty surprises midway through big projects. That council management have so far been unable to explain in detail the reasons for this significant blowout is not on.

Apparently, "design issues", "soil contamination" and "unexpected problems" have appeared over the past couple of months. Whatever does that mean?

Building projects of almost any size seem to encounter snags along the way. We deserve some reassurance that the "issues" referred to could not have been anticipated and budgeted for, or solved with a bit of lateral thinking rather than simply having extra ratepayer money thrown at them.

The Maitai Promenade, through Paruoroa Park, is already looking promising and once finished will be splendid. We need to know that it was not deliberately costed low to ensure councillor enthusiasm before sign-off with a wink-nudge expectation that the real price would come in later.

We need to know that cost-effectiveness has been a key criteria in managing the project, right from day one. We need to know that our councils are not seen as soft touches and easy money by designers, contractors and others wanting to capitalise on the council's plans to beautify the area.

Council watchers are only too aware of money spent without gain on pet projects, such as the ill-fated Montgomery Square car park plan and the redesign of the Buxton Square toilets. The former was a disaster; the latter was pulled back from the brink, with an outcome that has ultimately proved satisfactory.

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It's no excuse to say these contracts were signed by previous councils. It's the current lot that are in charge now, and they need to show that they know what they are doing.

- Nelson

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