The big debate on trust rebates

01:43, Jan 31 2009

It's the 54c election. More than anything else, this month's Wel Energy Trust ballot revolves around a debate about how Waikato electricity consumers could best spend 54 cents a week.

That amount reflects the maximum difference between the 90 per cent rebates already disbursed to Wel customers and the 100 per cent rebate half the existing trustees would prefer to see introduced, at the expense of community grants.

Ballot papers are being dispatched this week, in what may appear to cynics as a chewing gum budget vote, but has become a defining issue for the two major power blocs on the trust.

Trust chairman Garry Mallett's "Power Rebates We Won't Be Beaten On Discounts" team has clearly signalled its desire to do away with community grants financed by interest on trust investments in favour of assisting its Wel Networks lines company to further increase its rebate to customers.

By contrast, the new PDT Power Discounts team formed by an alliance of existing trust members Tania Hennebry, John Easto, Mark Bunting and Brad Chibnall, and first-time candidates Mark Ingle, Rob Hamill, Dave Currie and Denise Harding believes that there is still an important place for community grants.

While $22 million was disbursed in this year's consumer rebates, community grant funding now accounts for just $2 million.


Trust deputy chairwoman Tania Hennebry sees retaining a small component of annual grants as a fundamental part of the Wel Energy Trust mission statement of "Here for the community".

"I think a lot of people don't understand what this is all about," she says. "Fifty four cents a week is actually the top end. In a lot of cases it could be 25c. To stop funding valuable organisations for that amount doesn't bear thinking about."

Defending the continuation of grants has prompted Mallett to tag Hennebry's PDT group as "The Disappearing Discounts" team something that irritates Hennebry.

"It is being blown up as sensationalist stuff `they are going to take your discount away' but it is blatantly untrue.

"I go to Raglan and I swim. I'd like to think that if I got into trouble someone would jump into an inflatable and come and rescue me. Our funds help them with equipment and support so they can do their jobs, because they are volunteers."

Ingle, better known as Waikato University's manager of campus services, says the election outcome will provide an interesting perspective on the community's own sense of community.

"The 54c is insignificant from an individual perspective, but very significant from a community grants perspective when it gets bundled together."

Ingle says power rebates are reaching the peak of what the trust is able to extract from Wel Networks in negotiations.

"The only other bucket that hasn't been pilfered is the trust money, which is where the grants come from."

Hennebry was swept into the trust in 2002 on the Power Rebates Team ticket, where the original aim was to reduce grants, though she says nothing has changed.

"We always said when we came together as a group that the grants would be retained.

"When we came together in 2002 the trust was 100 per cent grants, and the trust of the day would not listen and people did want to have discounts. We just sought a better balance, and delivered on a promise to extract some fat from the company to pay out dividends in the form of rebates."

Bunting, better known as a top-rating radio DJ, says voters have to think hard about how they see the future of their community.

"Wel Energy Trust is an invaluable organisation in the evolution of our city. It is a real asset, a community jewel and what worries me is that, with respect to these other guys (Power Rebates - We Won't be Beaten on Discounts) there are a lot of right wing business guys in there.

"It's like putting the rats in the cheese factory. They have a philosophical objection to community-type things and that scares me.

"I'm not a socialist, but I can see if we lose this, it's gone, it's not coming back. We'll be left to poker machines and gambling outfits to fund our worthy causes and that's really frightening."

As a broadcaster Bunting interacts with a lot of community agencies.

"From surf lifesaving to social agencies working with at-risk kids, there is a lot of good work being done out there.

"You don't see that stuff going on if you don't want to, but we've got a pool of money there that can make a huge difference to them."

Bunting has had two terms on the trust as an independent, but found he had similar views to Hennebry, Easto, and Chibnall (formerly members of the old Power Rebates Team) and saw the need to be part of a wider group.

"It would be suicide to go against the rebates because they obviously make a huge difference and people love them.

"But while the primary focus is rebates, I was also worried about community grants getting hacked away. It was a natural alignment to join the PDT team."

Annually the trust gets $7 million of applications for grant funding, which gets whittled down to $2 million.

Bunting: "It's a big battle. We have people who are quite philosophically opposed to grants but are quite happy to get their noses in the trough when it comes down to community grants rounds for their favourite things."

Mallett argues that those who believe in grants are perfectly able to donate their rebates to causes of their choice.

But Bunting says that is impractical.

"Everyone would have to write out a cheque for 10 cents to every organisation.

"Besides, how many people will run for their chequebooks and make a donation when they get their rebates?

Ingle, who has a strong accountancy and business management background, says the trust need not be highly politicised and must consider the impact of its decisions.

"Some community organisations won't be able to function if we remove their funding."

Bunting agrees.

"I'm getting a lot of feedback about balance. I'm hearing a lot of people say there is room for both discounts and community grants."

Hennebry: "I just hope people's sense of fairness and balance will come in, rather than greed.

"For less than 54c a week how can you say goodbye to all the good work that bit of money does out in the community?"




Waikato Times