Balancing books to be council's prority

AARON LEAMAN
Last updated 05:00 13/06/2014
JULIE HARDAKER
FAIRFAX NZ
JULIE HARDAKER: Strong hand in draft annual plan.

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An eleventh-hour bid to claw back a proposed 3.8 per cent rate increase for Hamilton ratepayers has been spurned, with elected members reiterating their focus to balance the city's books.

City councillors yesterday deliberated on the council's draft annual plan ahead of its adoption on June 26.

Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker has played a strong hand in the plan's drafting and her initiatives of fast-tracking development at Hamilton Gardens and the completion of a Waikato River plan passed unscathed.

A targeted rate per property of $10 a year, for four years, will be used to fund the Hamilton Gardens development.

Other key proposals to get the green light include: expanding safety initiatives in the central city; free access to council pools for under-5s; an upgrade of playgrounds at Minogue Park and the Lake Domain; and an $80,000 plan to transform the central city into a strong commercial and residential centre.

Cut from the plan was a proposed $100,000 review investigating the merits of transferring responsibility for running the buses from the regional council to the city.

Council chief financial officer Richard Briggs said recent adjustments had reduced the council's depreciation budget by $3.3 million.

Together with other savings, the council was now forecasting a deficit of $3.26m for the 2014-15 financial year, instead of $5.9m.

The council now expected to balance its books by 2016 - one year earlier than targeted, Briggs said.

Councillor Garry Mallett said the new-found savings should be split, with half the amount used to pay off debt and the other half to ease the rates burden on residents.

Splitting the cost savings would enable the council to decrease its proposed rate hike from 3.8 per cent to 2.8 per cent, but still stay within its $440m debt cap and balance its books by 2016, Mallett said.

In reply, Briggs said depreciation was a non-cash item and did not reflect money in the bank.

The council would have to increase its debt to fund the reduced rates increase, Briggs said.

Mallett's amendment was voted down 10 to 3.

Councillor Angela O'Leary said that she could not recall any submitter asking the council for a rates decrease at the expense of taking on more debt.

Councillor Rob Pascoe said balancing the city's books should remain the council's "immediate priority".

"If the surplus can be achieved sooner than 2017 then this would effectively allow the council to go past go and allow for a more effective and confident plan for the city's growth, which I see as rolling on as our next major challenge," Pascoe said.

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Hardaker said the council's financial strategy had served the city well and it was essential the council balance its books "as soon as possible".

- Waikato Times

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