Unrepentant Livingston still has mayoral bucket list
People need to look at big picture on spending, he tells Angela Cuming.
A clue to Alan Livingston's political future rests on the glossy cover of the Waipa District Council's current 10-year plan.
The image is of the mayor, now in his 12th year of the top job, with one of the district's young children - and future ratepayer.
The image of Mr Livingston as an elder statesman of Waipa, a grandfatherly figure, may have been deliberate but it drew the inevitable criticism from some quarters about the length of his tenure and the need for a change in leadership.
For his part, Mr Livingston says it is a question that weighs heavily on his mind.
"Serving as mayor is the ultimate community service," he says.
"This is my 18th year in local government, my 12th as mayor. But it is a job that has rich rewards, it is still challenging and full of opportunities to achieve great things.
"I have been in the business long enough to know I still have something to offer."
If he were to retire, he says it would be due to a "change in family circumstances".
"There is a personal side to this job, and that's how much of your time is taken up by it. My wife, Janet, and I have grandchildren now, it would be nice to spend more time with them."
The pride Mr Livingston has for his patch is clear.
He describes Waipa as "the best district in New Zealand".
"We are, after all, the home of champions," he says. But that claim to fame as it were, the link between Waipa and sporting champions, has seen the mayor heavily criticised.
At the heart of the debate is the council's involvement in the construction of a velodrome - the "home of cycling" - in Cambridge.
The council put $1 million towards the project, aimed at giving elite cyclists a base in the Waikato and creating a facility open to the public for use.
It was a project that divided the community, and even today the letters to the editor pages are still scattered with opinions on the council and its mayor that often border on the vitriolic.
For example, Ohaupo resident Malcolm Hume's letter, published in this newspaper on November 1, 2012, said: "I suggest they get Lance Armstrong to open the velodrome, as councils and Lance Armstrong are all tarred with the same brush. Don't forget the Home of Cycling has to upgrade the motorway Black Spot at ‘St Peters Corner'. Which is also know as ‘Human Sausage Machine Corner'."
Mr Livingston is guarded when asked what he thinks of the velodrome critics.
"I guess some of them come with a politically vested interest in what they say and do," he says.
"But what they are overlooking is the major economic benefits that the velodrome will bring to the region.
"People need to look at the big picture. The benefits far outweigh the costs."
There has also been flak over this year's rate hike.
Waipa residents were met with an average rate increase of 4.3 per cent, while some ratepayers were hit with hikes of more than 20 per cent.
Cue more letter writers, and a vocal protest on the streets of Te Awamutu with residents accusing the council of being out of touch with public opinion.
At the time Mr Livingston was quoted as saying the ratepayers "can't have it both ways".
"If people want lower rates at all costs, there will be services and facilities they must be prepared to reduce or go without," he said.
"I don't regret any of the decisions I've made for the Waipa district," he says.
"I am a mayor who is more than prepared to make the hard decisions and to stand by them.
"I appreciate that any rates increases are tough for some ratepayers [but] we have already done a lot of work to ensure we are running a tight ship."
Mr Livingston acknowledges that critics have accused the council of "out of control spending", something he rejects.
He believes the controversial Cambridge pool project will deliver "in one form or another" a facility desperately needed by that community.
"And so I do support it, yes.
"We have heard that people want us to reduce spending and for the focus to be on our core infrastructure rather than the ‘nice-to-haves'.
"The reality is that, of the $409 million we plan to spend on capital projects in the next 10 years, 71 per cent is on core services like roading, water and wastewater. Only 14 per cent is discretionary with 3 per cent of that expected to be funded from external sources," Mr Livingston said.
"The remaining 15 per cent is compliance costs, mainly in relation to core services, to ensure we are meeting legislative requirements. That is a challenge for all councils around New Zealand."
Facing angry protesters may be a less desirable part of the job, but Mr Livingston has enjoyed his fair share of perks in 2012.
Topping that list was a trip to London to cheer on the district's athletes during the Olympics.
"That was an honour, a real privilege, and I was immensely proud to be there, supporting them," he says.
"It was a highlight of my career, something I will never forget."
Another high for the year, he says, was meeting so many residents at community functions.
"It is a part of my job I enjoy immensely," he says.
And the letter writers may have to refill their ink cartridges with Mr Livingston hinting that he still has several goals left to tick off his mayoral bucket list.
"One I want to achieve, to be around for, is to see the long-term plan adopted," he says.
"So I will be around for a while yet."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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