Amalgamation could be district's future - mayor

CHRIS GARDNER
Last updated 05:00 26/12/2012

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Otorohanga mayor Dale Williams would be hanging up his mayoral chains and giving up his mayoral car next election . . . if he had any.

Mr Williams, who finishes his third and final term as mayor of the self-styled Kiwiana capital of New Zealand at October 12's local body elections, has no costly official mayoral chains.

"Otorohanga District Council has never had official chains or robes, apparently there's an expensive registration/protocol with them, but about seven years ago I had a television crew come for a story and the Project Kiwiana ladies created a set of chains which were uniquely Kiwiana, full of local bling, and inexpensive.

"I treat them as official, and wear them on formal occasions. So, technically, we don't have authentic mayoral chains, rather our own take on them."

Mr Williams, who served as a councillor for three terms before he became mayor, also shares a single pool car with his councillors.

It's all about keeping the cost to ratepayers down, he said.

"We have very low debt, $13 million predicted to go down to $4 million in the next 10 years," Mr Williams said.

But it's unlikely the local authority will last that long, at least in its current form, if the rumblings Mr Williams is hearing from the politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington are anything to go by.

"The reality is that we are told with certainty that we are too small, by people in high places," Mr Williams said. "They are telling us that we need to get off our backside and come up with a reorganisation proposal."

He was speaking after legislative changes that enabled anyone to recommend local government reform to the Local Government Commission anywhere in the country, and gave the commission more leeway in what it decides.

Indeed, there are rumours of Otorohanga amalgamating with Waitomo to the south and Waipa to the north. It's a rumour that both Mr Williams and Waitomo Mayor Brian Hanna deny is on the cards now, but it could well be in the future.

In 2004, amalgamation between Otorohanga and Waitomo District Council was shelved because Otorohanga residents - concerned with absorbing Waitomo's debt - voted against the proposal following a public referendum.

But another change in the legislation, which now says there must be a demonstrable benefit, makes such a move more likely next time such a proposal is mooted.

"We have been told the optimal size for our council will be 40,000 to 50,000 people . . . Otorohanga is 10,000," Mr Williams said.

Waitomo is a similar size.

Mr Hanna is of the same mindset as Mr Williams, although his council has a lot more debt at $47 million, thanks to a raft of capital projects that required the upgrade of sewage plants at Te Kuiti, Piopio and Benneydale.

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"I have been small all my life and it's never bothered me," Mr Williams said.

The NZ Transport Agency is looking at taking responsibility for the region's non-state highway roads from district councils and establishing a regional roading authority to which local authorities will have to come, cap in hand, for cash.

"Sixty-five per cent of our daily business is roading, so, if roading is taken away from us, we are out of business," Mr Williams said.

"We have got roads in this district that have a daily movement of less than 10. It might have a forestry block at the end and two farms and we say we can never guarantee you a seal but we can guarantee you a grader twice a year. Under a regional model they would get lost in the noise.

"It's death by 1000 cuts."

Mr Williams is certain that by the general election after next the local government landscape will be quite different in the Waikato because of the messages he is getting from Wellington.

"I don't really know what the landscape is going to look like," he said.

Mr Williams said he would be in touch with his counterparts in the neighbouring districts as things unfolded and promised to communicate with the district's residents as much and often as possible.

"If we accept that change is inevitable we don't want people to wake up and realise this change has happened and we did not tell them," he said.

"We have also drafted a statement of our position."

In it the council puts a case for maintaining the status quo.

"Otorohanga District Council believes that a small union of rural councils would be likely to place unfair and unacceptable burdens on Otorohanga District Council ratepayers, and that a large regional reorganisation is likely to be politically dominated by the larger urban centres, with potentially adverse long-term effects on self-determination and affordability for rural areas. Council would, therefore, prefer to retain the status quo," the statement said.

"If, however, the Otorohanga district were to be included in reorganisation, we believe that it should be of moderate size, that has sufficient scale to adequately dilute and/or "ring fence" any relatively high costs and debts associated with the other partner councils. And is able to meet other local government rationalisation objectives of central government whilst retaining an adequate level of local representation."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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