West Coast may borrow to fund Te Tai o Poutini Plan

3:57 pm on 19 April 2020

The West Coast Regional Council may borrow money to avoid a rate rise this year, its chief executive says.

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Many West Coast businesses - like their counterparts around the country - have been staying shut during the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Supplied

During an online briefing this week, councillors agreed rates should not be going up while the Coast economy was reeling from the impact of Covid-19, chief executive Mike Meehan said.

"As elected members they are committed to zero increases for the 2020-21 year, to help with recovery."

But that presented the council with a major challenge, in terms of how to fund work that had to be done on the Tai o Poutini Plan, he said.

Mike Meehan

West Coast Regional Council Mike Meehan Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

District councils are involved in developing a new combined district plan for the whole region, by order of the Local Government Commission. But the commission has tasked the regional council with leading the project, and setting a regional rate to cover the cost.

"Last year we struck a special rate to raise $250,000, we repurposed $150,000 from the economic development fund, we found $50,000 in an internal budget and we had a one-off payment of $200,000 from the Local Government Commission, taking it up to $650,000."

The Westland council had contributed $50,000, but this year none of the councils were doing so, and without the Local Government Commission payment there would be a significant shortfall in the 'one plan' budget of about $350,000, Meehan said.

"The regional council still has the power to strike a rate but with [Covid-19] everything changes, and I have asked the project manager to review the budget, for the 'one plan' committee and the council to look at."

The costs of the work include paying for a project manager, a senior planner and a part-timer; legal and professional advice and services; and the 'one plan' roadshow (halted for now by Covid-19).

One option would be taking out a loan to continue work on the plan.

"We could look at short-term borrowing to plug the gap. We absolutely do not want to put rates up when the community is hurting from the impact of [Covid-19]."

The regional council has an investment fund of $12.6 million, but already used the interest from that to keep rates down and pay for other costs, Meehan said.

"The conundrum is that the 'one plan' will streamline costs for all ratepayers and councils once it's in place, and that would certainly help economic recovery, but we have a lot of work to do and it's very challenging."

The most controversial part of the work would be identifying significant natural areas (SNAs) in all three districts, but the council was still hoping to notify the 'one plan' in two to three years, he said.

"The most difficult thing for our elected members is their council's been required to do something that's not their responsibility, on behalf of the three district councils, while Joe Public, all he or she sees is an increase in their regional rates bill.

"It can be very hard, because of the complexity of the thing, to explain why that's justified."

The Tai o Poutini Plan Committee - the group of council leaders and iwi reps working on the 'one plan', is meeting on Monday 20 April at 12.30pm, via Zoom, and the meeting will be livestreamed on the regional council's Facebook page.

The West Coast Regional Council will hold its next meeting by Zoom on Tuesday 28 April.

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