Six figure clean air cash unspent as Timaru wood burner replacement date looms
Environment Canterbury's clean heat programme ended the year with a six figure sum unspent prompting concern the cash was amassed and not applied where it was needed.
The clean heat programme provides subsidies for people in Timaru to install compliant wood burners and heat pumps. It ended the financial year with a $351,921 reserve.
The fund is paid-for by rates that target Timaru ratepayers. Last year, $176,491 was collected for the fund and about $14,000 was unspent and dropped back into the fund's reserve.
Timaru District Council Timaru Ward by-election candidate Antony Brien, who obtained the figures from ECan, said it should not be building its "own reserves" through the scheme.
The money ought to funnelled into more subsidies to help people comply with the potentially costly requirements of the regional clean air plan, Brien said.
"[They have] subsidy criteria that means many cannot gain subsidies to help solve the issue. ECan should be supporting the ratepayer, not the other way round."
The council has subsidies of up to $5000 available for to replace their old woodburners with either newer models, or with heat pumps.
Timaru people must apply for building consent to replace their woodburner before October 31.
Brien said he believed the fact so much money remained unspent suggested the subsidies were too difficult to get.
'"My concern is that there's money waiting there, and it's not being used to help the problem."
An ECan media spokeswoman said the cash reserves had been built up over a number of years, with money from targeted rates. In 2013 the reserves stood at $463,921.
In the last three financial years the reserves have not dropped below $337,883.
ECan councillor Peter Scott said, at the moment, the subsidy sat with people who were most at risk.
Whether or not the requirements should be changed was something that needed to be looked at the end of the winter fire season, when ECan sat down with the district council.
ECan air quality director Katherine Trought said any reserves raised from the scheme would be used in Timaru in future years.
"As expected, we are seeing an upswing in the number of people taking steps to upgrade older-style woodburners as we approach the October 31 deadline, and reserves will be used as needed to fund this.
"We have also extended the criteria to help more people and increased to value of subsidies to up to $5000."
In the last financial year, 102 subsidies were granted.
Brien, a former district councillor, said he understood money raised through targeted rates had to be used for the purpose it was raised for.
"ECan advise that the maximum subsidy is up to $5000, therefore, if they used their reserves they would be able to support 70 households change over or even a lot more if they expanded the criteria and lowered the subsidy."
People who were not eligible for a subsidy were still having to pay the targeted rate – and were being told they could not use their fire in the future, Brien said.
"I am not sure what the subsidies should be but the criteria they are using is not enough to attract people to apply for them.
"I got a clarification that the reserves are a policy for ECan.
"[But] they shouldn't rate people and not spend the money. The criteria needs adjustment, because it's not attracting enough people."
By-election candidate Mark Rogers, head of the South Canterbury Regional Air Plan Liaison Committee, said he agreed with Brien that the criteria for subsidies was "too stringent" .
The reserves "absolutely need to be distributed out" as $5000 was a lot of money for many people, not just lower-income families, he said.
Fellow candidate Nigel Bowen said candidates needed to remember they were standing in a district council election, not an ECan one.
From what he had heard anecdotally the uptake of subsidies had dramatically increased, with the publicity the wood burner issue was receiving helping to a great extent.
Opening the floodgates would lead to an influx of subsidy applications, Bowen said.
Candidate Murray Cleverley said he was sure the money would be spent on the scheme eventually. Potentially, the focus should be be on education rather than more subsidies, so people were aware of what was available.
Candidate Owen "OJ" Jackson said the money should be distributed in the form of subsidies.
He would attend the liaison committee's public meeting on Sunday, at Roncalli College, to see what the public thought.
- The Timaru Herald