There is agreement at a local, regional and national level that the Tasman District Council must rein in its borrowing and spending to avoid a debt crisis. Even the mayor and councillors admit it - while at the same time having to take some responsibility for setting the scene, since the new council is pretty much the old one, with the same man, Richard Kempthorne, at the head of the table.
Whether the right way to attack the acknowledged problem is to impose swingeing increases in its facility charges is questionable, yet that is what the council is proposing to do at its main commercial and recreational port in Golden Bay, Port Tarakohe. If it goes ahead with what is mooted in a report by consultancy WHK Nelson, marina berth holders will see a doubling in what they pay, boat ramp users will face a big hike in their fees and the mussel industry, the biggest commercial client, will be expected to pay twice as much per metre of mussel line as it does now. All of this will substantially reduce the ratepayer subsidy to the port, which was $110,000 in 2012, more than 20 per cent of the revenue required for the operations and capital expenditure.
What seems to be missing from the report is blindingly obvious to the port's users: if the council pushes ahead, the mussel line rate will be more than double what is paid by Marlborough Sounds marine farmers, the boat ramp will be the most expensive across the Nelson region and it will cost almost double - for fewer services - to have a boat in the Port Tarakohe marina than at Port Nelson. It is no surprise that the commercial and recreational users of this most attractive little port are united in their opposition to what the council is proposing.
To be fair, the council has consulted various port users - "stakeholders" is the fashionable term - and held a well-attended public meeting earlier in the month, where it received a firm indication of the community's unhappiness. After that Mr Kempthorne went so far as to say that the financial model would be the subject of a "slight rethink" as a result of the feedback.
But is that enough? The meeting at which the council will decide on the new charges, and whether to backdate them to July 1, is looming. Are councillors to be led by consultants and their own staff members intent on giving the port's assets a high value and then demanding a return that will send charges skyrocketing? Will they listen to the port's users and pursue a less punitive regime? Or will they take a bit more time to think through what they want to achieve, and how to get there? Port Tarakohe is already a wonderful community asset and pivotal to Golden Bay's tourist industry. As the development plan shows, it could be much more. Get the charging wrong and the council will burn off goodwill that is very hard to win back.
- The Nelson Mail