20 May 2020

Elderly Mangawhai couple may lose home in long-running rates dispute

From Checkpoint, 5:22 pm on 20 May 2020

An elderly Mangawhai couple could be kicked out of their own home over a long-running rates dispute with Kaipara District Council.

Bruce and Heather Rogan say their quality of life has plummeted as a result of the stoush.

But after numerous, lengthy court spats, the couple's struggle is nearly over.

The rates rebels have been given until Friday to pay Kaipara District Council more than $100,000 of court costs and penalties.

If they refuse to pay, they believe the council will move heaven and earth to foreclose on them.

"At the moment they are pursuing us for the court's costs and the penalties and interest," Heather Rogan told Checkpoint.

"We said 'okay, we can't afford to pay all that, but we can pay $80,000 and let them settle it'.

"They turned that down and said, 'no, we will forgo the interest, which is about $700. So we'll forgo that but you must pay the rest, which comes to about $115,000 and you have until May 22, this Friday, to pay that all that'.

"'And basically, if you don't pay, we have charging orders, three charging orders, over your property'."

The Rogans' story can be traced back over a decade.

In 2006, Kaipara District Council told ratepayers it would borrow $35 million to build a sewerage system in Mangawhai.

The following year, it drew down nearly $60 million for an expanded scheme without consultation or revealing the debt.

Bruce, Heather and hundreds of fellow ratepayers were outraged and resisted rates payments in protest.

"We wanted to see some action taken, because once the state of the blowout had been disclosed we said 'well this is not something you could conceivably leave alone'," Bruce Rogan said.

"You've got to do something about this, because if a business entered into a project that was going to cost $20 million and it ended up spending $80 million on that project somebody would be held to account ... because the shareholders wouldn't tolerate anything else. And we are the shareholders of the council."

Back in 2013, the High Court made it clear ratepayers would have gained the declaration they so longed for - that rates levied for the sewerage scheme were invalid.

However, Parliament gazumped the court by months earlier passing a bill validating the rates.

Bruce said he only ever wanted to get to the bottom of the council's gaffe.

"We said 'well, you know, we accept something's gone badly wrong, but now let's find out what went wrong, on detail, and who did it, who was responsible for letting it go so wrong'," he said.

"The council simply refused, point blank."

Following the High Court ruling, the Rogans, along with hundreds of residents, paid their rates minus the penalties.

Kaipara District Council returned those payments and hit back by suing residents for both rates plus the penalties.

The Rogans became a test case and, after years traversing the country's judicial system, eventually lost at the Supreme Court.

"We thought somebody had to do this and I've always been a fairly dogged sort of person. And we both operate on the basis of principle," Bruce said.

"We always have."

Bruce said the battle has "pretty much killed" him.

He has had both hips replaced, his prostate removed and has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

"So my quality of life has taken a hell of a hit and, of course, an immense amount has fallen on Heather as a result of my difficulties over this," he said.

"What has kept us going is our grandchildren.

"We don't want to leave a world in which they can't have any faith in the systems, because if we don't have the rule of law we don't have anything."

The couple are not alone. Donations have come from hundreds of Mangawhai locals, as well as ratepayers from around the country.

Over the years some individuals have given as much as $10,000.

Clearly, the Rogans have back-up, but Heather believes it may be time to walk away.

"We feel really we have no choice but to pay," she said.

"However, the question has arisen as to the legality of pursuing penalties, when we have on a number of occasions actually paid our rates.

"On one occasion all the rates from striking ratepayers were paid to them and then they were all returned.

"But they say that they have a legal opinion that says that they can still charge penalties on rates even though they've been tendered.

"So we're up in the air a little bit about that."

Kaipara Mayor Jason Smith says court-ordered interest charges could be added to what the Rogans' owe if they do not pay - but the council could go further and take the couple's property.

"That is one possibility," he said.

"Quite simply they have a debt to be paid and they can pay it however they choose.

"It is regrettable how long this process has all gone and it's a very, very sad.

"I am sad."

One way or the other, the decade-long saga will end on Friday.