Watching the Hastings Council deal with money issues is a painful ordeal. Fortunately, for all parties, ratepayers rarely witness the gruesome process.

Yesterday, the HDC’s Finance & Monitoring Committee met for a bit over four hours. That’s another name for the full Council, only with the Finance Chair, Wayne Bradshaw, running the meeting instead of the Mayor.

The session began with a full 45 minutes discussing dog fees, despite the fact — as it was noted — that a review of the entire policy is underway. That set the torrid pace for the afternoon.

[Interesting factoid: 18% of the dogs cause 69% of the problems. I say line up the troublemakers and shoot deport ’em, saving ratepayers over $600,000.]

Next up was an extension of the Council’s lease to Hutchinson Furniture, which happens to operate from the ground floor of the Opera House building. The key question: should the rent be collected by the Opera House (where the income would, one might argue, artificially “inflate” the revenue earned by the new Opera House charitable company) or by the Council, the owner of the building. In an astonishing burst of transparency, the Councillors decided to have the Council itself collect the rent. Only Councillor Twigg didn’t seem to get the rationale.

A number of other issues were raised related to the accountability of the new Opera House Ltd, chiefly by Councillor Wilson-Hunt. For example, when — if ever — might the Council no longer need to subsidise the Opera House? And, cutting the other direction, would the Board of the Opera House focus too much on earning revenue, squeezing out community use of the facility?

Now, it should be noted that Councillor Wilson-Hunt actually had done some homework, prepared questions and actively participated in the discussions … which is more than can be said for many of her fellow Councillors, some of whom seemed clueless, and others apparently bored with how well the Council spends money or devolves that authority to once or twice-removed legal entities with commensurately attenuated public accountability.

[The real power in Hastings Council lies with law firm Bannister & von Dadelszen, who does all the paperwork organising the Council’s various trusts, controlled organisations and holding companies. Too bad they’re not listed on the NZ Exchange!]

So, who besides Councillor Wilson-Hunt really came to the meeting to engage? I’d say Wayne Bradshaw, who never fails to exasperate his colleagues by asking fiduciary questions no one else wants to know the answers to; Councillor Bowers, an accountant by background who has clearly mastered the budget; and Mayor Yule, who after a few terms knows the numbers and arguments well enough to productively multi-task his way through the meeting, occasionally commenting and mediating, and otherwise processing his mayoral paperwork.

These four could have conducted the meeting amongst themselves, sparing their colleagues a tiresome afternoon. Maybe summoning them occasionally from the Councillors’ dining room for a quorum call.

As the meeting wore on, Councillors heard more about the financial woes of Splash Planet and the Holiday Park, both losing money. There was much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. Actually, it’s not that these Council-run enterprises are losing money … that’s become the norm; it’s that they’re losing even more money than they were budgeted to lose. But not to worry … studies of these situations are underway.

And at a future meeting of the Finance & Monitoring Committee, I’m sure that our eagle-eyed Councillors will get to the heart of the matter!

Tom Belford

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