Whakatāne council chases government for costs of three crises

4:02 pm on 20 May 2020

The triple crises of the Edgecumbe floods, Whakaari eruption and Covid-19 have cost Whakatāne ratepayers millions.

A volcano with a large plume of ash.

Whakaari/White Island during the eruption on 9 December last year. Photo: Supplied/Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

Despite Whakatāne District Council's best efforts to recover some money from the government, much of the cost remains outstanding.

Figures provided by the council show responding to Covid-19 has cost more than $78,000 while its response to the Whakaari eruption has cost it an estimated $900,000.

The council also has approximately $3 million in costs relating to the 2017 Edgecumbe floods.

Communications spokesperson Frank Begley said the council had requested funding from Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta for costs relating to the Whakaari eruption.

Mahuta is the "territorial authority" for the island and, due to an agreement with the Department of Internal Affairs, the Bay of Plenty Regional Civil Defence group - of which the Whakatāne council is a member - exercises the minister's roles in an emergency response.

Such a response was activated after the fatal eruption in December.

The council also applied to the Minister of Civil Defence Peeni Henare to recover $2m of the $3m outstanding Edgecumbe flood costs, but the request was turned down despite the government at the time having assured the council these costs would be refunded.

Overall, it is unclear what proportion of the costs can be claimed from the relevant government agencies and how much Whakatāne ratepayers will have to shoulder.

Begley said a letter from Henare essentially stated that the council's application for a $2m payment as special policy financial support did not meet the guidelines for funding.

"The letter outlined the various ways the government had assisted with the emergency, including reimbursement to Whakatāne District Council of $246,000 for eligible welfare-related costs," he said.

"It said that the type of financial support the council was applying for may be available, subject to approval by Cabinet, for new programmes of work that are likely to reduce the occurrence of an emergency in the future, or where a local authority has been overwhelmed by an emergency and funding is not available from local authority resources for the eligible programme of work."

The decision, however, was that the council's request did not meet these requirements under the national civil defence emergency management plan guide and no further funding was available.

Houses on College Road that were devastated by the flood lie broken and abandoned.

The council is facing $3 million in costs relating to the 2017 Edgecumbe floods. Photo: RNZ / Jessie Chiang

The burden of funding successive crises has been debated at several council meetings recently.

Mayor Judy Turner expressed frustration at a meeting last month at how long it had taken to recover this money for the community from the government. She said she wished the burden of initially funding these events would fall upon multiple agencies instead of the council alone.

Turner said these comments referred to the burden the council's emergency management responsibilities could add to its residents and staff, but there was a multi-agency approach that worked "very well" and that council was grateful for.

"With a global pandemic of the magnitude of this we really are all in it together," she said.

"We still have a long way to go and must continue working closely with the business sector, iwi, our neighbouring councils, our community and the government to get through.

"We're very much, as a council, looking at how we use every available resource, partner and opportunity to kickstart the economy again and reimagine our district."

Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner.

Mayor Judy Turner says the council is canvassing widely in order to kickstart the local economy again after the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Councillors at last week's risk and assurance committee meeting learned the costs to date of responding to Covid-19 and how much it is expected to cost into the future.

Councillor Lesley Immink questioned how long it was going to take to get costs from all three crises refunded by central government.

"We have been disproportionally affected and we need to put that pressure on government."

She was told the mayor, chief executive and general manager strategy and economic development were working with government in relation to all three crises.

Turner said Immink was "quite right" in what she was saying and she would like to speak with Christchurch and Kaikōura about how long it took their communities to have money refunded by the government for their crises.

"We are getting to the stage where we need to see what options we have left to put that pressure on," Mrs Turner said.

General manager community services Mike Naude said the Whakatāne district always seemed to be "in the thick of it all the time".

"As soon as we make it through one event, we land in another," he said.

Turner and council chief executive Stephanie O'Sullivan were tasked with approaching Kaikōura and Christchurch councils for advice and information, and liaising with government ministers.

The issue was raised again at yesterday's extraordinary council meeting where councillors heard a proposal from general manager finance and corporate services Helen Barnes to create a specific fund for the Covid-19 recovery and a proposal to get help for the Edgecumbe flood overdrawn reserve balance to term debt.

O'Sullivan said she had not yet rung the Kaikōura and Christchurch councils, but she noted that Whakatāne's situation was very different to what they had each experienced.

"Whakaari was an off-shore island event, which was unprecedented," she said.

"With Edgecumbe many off the costs were outside policy at the time. The government assured us they would refund those costs and then changed their mind.

"We are unique, the floodbank that burst wasn't our asset. Many of what we have faced have been unique situations."

She said she and the mayor had spoken to East Coast MP Anne Tolley that morning about what could be done.

"Previous mayor Tony Bonne pursued getting those costs back like a terrier," O'Sullivan said. "I think that is the only way we are going to get those costs back with policy working against us."

View of Moutohora Island in the distant from Puketapu Lookout at Whakatane town in Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

The council's chief executive says it will have to work "like a terrier" to recoup costs from three crises affecting the region from the government. Photo: 123RF

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