Editorial: All options must be on the table

Last updated 05:00 27/01/2014

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OPINION: The story of the Christchurch City Council's finances is an evolving one.

Precisely how costly the damage done to the city's underground infrastructure, for instance, has only become known as the work on it has been completed.

Even without considering the thorny question of underinsurance, how much the council will be able to recover from its insurers for damage to assets such as AMI Stadium and the central library has already been the subject of extended negotiation with no doubt much more to come, possibly followed by litigation.

In addition to all that, the costs of repairs and rebuilding have risen sharply.

The previous council insisted that the city's finances were under control and from what they knew at the time, and with some optimistic assumptions, that may have been a reasonable view.

But the new mayor and council members have understandably set about trying to get a clear picture for themselves.

An interim report by outside consultants Korda Mentha produced before Christmas delivered no great surprises - council finances are stretched, underinsurance and wrangles over claims are problematic, projected spending may have to be rethought.

As part of the process of bringing a fresh perspective to the council's finances, the chairman of the finance committee, Raf Manji, said last week that consultants are now being hired to review the council's asset holdings.

The aim will be to find ways for the council to get the best value out of the many millions it has invested in its assets. All options will be on the table.

The options are in fact reasonably narrow. Rates rises are more or less at the limit of what businesses and homeowners can tolerate.

Borrowing, too, has gone from historic lows to what in a few years will be historic highs where it will stay for decades. It is already clear that about 20 per cent of rates in future will be needed to service the debt.

One option, raised by Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend among others, would be to defer some work.

So far as work on the council's own assets is concerned that might be contentious and as for the projects where there is cost-sharing with the Government, the Government is likely to be reluctant to agree to any delays.

Manji has also spoken sensibly of the possibility that selling some assets may produce a better financial result for the council than keeping them.

This is an advance on the position held by a majority of the elected members of the previous council.

Although it is understood council officials were not averse to the idea, a majority of elected members took a rigidly ideological position against it.

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The starting point of any discussion of the options is, as Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has said, for the council to be entirely candid about its financial position.

With the Korda Mentha report and the proposed review of assets, that process is well under way.

When that is complete, it will be possible for the council, with ratepayer input, to have a proper debate about the best way to proceed.

- The Press

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