Napier Mayor Kirsten Wise

I sat down this week with Mayor Kirsten Wise for a preview of how she and her Council will tackle the coming year.

Clearly money – ratepayer money – will be the central focus of attention as the Napier City Council, like all other councils in HB, will be determining Three Year Plans for the period beginning July 1. Given uncertainties around cyclone recovery burdens and resources, councils will not need to produce the normal ten-year plans LTPs.

Amongst HB councils, NCC is first cab off the ranks in disclosing its likely funding requirements. One might say, the lightning rod!

The Council has signaled a likely rate increase in the “low twenties” range. Borrowing will increase significantly from its current external debt of $82 million, rising to $253 million in Year 3 … and even to $542 million ten years out. All within stipulated limits against revenue.

Much of my discussion with Mayor Wise centered on the new ‘fiscal normal’ driven by higher costs just to satisfy ‘business as usual’, compounded by disaster recovery spending and even more by catch-up capital spending to address woeful legacy under-spending on water infrastructure. Meantime, the city’s underlying rate base is projected to grow only 0.3% per annum.

The fiscal and priorities issues confronting NCC are laid out in a staff paper (located here) prepared for a public Council meeting set for February 8. Formal consultation on the Three-Year Plan will begin 25 March.

The mayor says NCC’s financial planning cannot assume any funding support from Government. “We must plan to pay our own way … any Government assistance would be welcome gravy.” This posture extends to ‘3 Waters’ as well, as I’ll comment further.

The Regional Recovery Agency, led by Napier Port chair Blair O’Keeffe, has the task of lobbying on behalf of the region for Government assistance, be that funding or enabling policies/legislation. Mayor Wise, who also chairs the region’s Matariki leadership group, was confident that those efforts are well in hand.

We discussed the Labour Government-initiated Local Government Review, which did recommend additional funding avenues for local government. Mayor Wise hopes those won’t be tossed away by the new team … are you listening MPs Nimon and Wedd?! More on this in the future.

Another priority signaled by Mayor Wise is a year-long review of all NCC’s commercial and tourism-related facilities – Kennedy Park, the Aquarium, Ocean Spa, MTG, Faraday Centre etc. The objective is to determine the future of each of these facilities, including to what extent they should become more commercially driven as opposed to ratepayer subsidised. Some facilities need substantial capital improvement and priorities for continuing ratepayer support need to be examined, given fiscal realities. 

For the next fiscal year, these facilities are on status quo in terms of current funding, with the review slated to take 12 months. “We will spend what we need to” in the immediate future, but “not make any significant investment” pending this review, says Mayor Wise.

That’s an initiative sure to put some nerves on edge! 

We touched upon a number of other issues.

Cyclone recovery is of course top of mind. The Mayor is especially pleased with the business-led work group that is planning recovery for the Awatoto area, with NCC’s most direct stake in that being its own wastewater treatment plant, whose flooding vastly complicated recovery efforts in the industrial area. 

More broadly, NCC had commissioned an independent review of its handling of the immediate cyclone response. That report identified numerous areas where NCC could have been better prepared – clear crisis role definition, relevant training in those roles, clearer protocols for decision-making and for maintaining essential business continuity, more ‘what if’ planning scenarioes. My favourite: how long can the Aquarium function without power?

I see no ‘smoking guns’ in the report, but heaps of practical advice based upon a wealth of available crisis management experience. The mayor said, in effect … we heard it; we’re on it.

Housing is another of the mayor’s concerns. We discussed the region’s plans for region-wide spatial planning, an initiative that was spurred by the Labour Government’s RMA reforms. The Coalition Government is jettisoning those reforms, but Mayor Wise says the region’s mayors remain committed to the need for a regional planning approach and she expects that initiative to proceed, whether legislatively required or not.

Council’s role in addressing climate change? “We’re not doing enough,” says the mayor, indicating she felt the overall commitment needed to be elevated within her council as well as across the regional effort.

And finally, back to ‘3 Waters’, Mayor Wise expressed confidence that the Government will support the kind of regional water infrastructure plan that HB mayors had advocated in opposition to the Labour consolidation. 

But as noted above, there’s no indication that central government will fund the massive required infrastructure investment. So any new regional entity will need to come to terms with how that investment will be funded by local residents and businesses, a decision that includes how the ‘poor cousins’ in CHB and Wairoa will be supported by Hastings and Napier ratepayers. Mayor Wise says the mayors are committed to sorting that … “We won’t back off now!” Hmmm!

One more in a series of very tough money decisions our local elected officials will be making in the months ahead.


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