Millions in funding cuts to Rotorua council services proposed

8:14 pm on 12 April 2023

By Laura Smith, Local Democracy Reporter

Rotorua Lakes Council is proposing funding cuts across the board in its draft 2023/24 annual plan, in a bid to limit rates rises.

Rotorua Lakes Council is proposing funding cuts across the board in a bid to limit rates rises. Photo: NZME

Widespread council spending cuts are being proposed in a bid to save almost $30 million and limit possible rates rises in Rotorua.

The possible cuts range from stopping investment in mountain biking trails and sports field improvements to closing the library on Sundays and removing inner-city flower beds and hanging baskets at Ngongotahā.

Cuts are also proposed for the arts and creative communities.

Rotorua Lakes Council's draft 2023/24 Annual Plan is now out for consultation and people can have their say on what has been proposed.

It is expected, in the plan, that the council's debt would increase by $51m and it would have a $141m capital projects programme.

This includes key projects such as beginning work on Rotorua Museum's restoration, completion of the city's aquatic centre upgrade, and stormwater enhancements.

The council had a debt limit of 250 percent of its annual revenue, and the $51m of borrowing would mean the limit would sit at about 181 percent.

Among its proposed ways of balancing the books was increasing costs for services and facilities - such as at the aquatic centre, parking fees, liquor licensing and dog registration - in line with inflation.

In a message to the community in the draft plan, Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell said it was about addressing challenges faced by the community while balancing what was essential for it, with the need for "prudent financial management".

In her message, the mayor said the council ensured it did not drive borrowing to unsustainable levels and proposed borrowing $51m instead of $77m, as previously planned.

She also said councils faced hurdles managing increasing costs of construction, high inflation, labour shortages in a competitive market, and government reforms.

"We're also very aware that our community is suffering from a cost of living and housing crisis."

As such, the council was being proactive and had refocused proposed spending to be cost-effective, she said.

"We invite you all to consider what we are proposing. Your feedback is important to ensure we have a well-balanced plan to see us through the tough year ahead and get Rotorua back on track."

She said councillors provided a clear direction and set four key priorities for the next three years: housing; community; economy; and infrastructure.

Councillors approved the draft plan to go out for consultation last week, and feedback can be given until 12 May.

The cost-of-living crisis was a key theme of discussion at the meeting and it was explained that if what the council had laid out in its long-term plan were to go ahead, a rates increase of 11.95 percent would have been needed.

The capital projects programme was reduced from $162m.

To achieve this, council staff proposed a variety of spending cuts and fees increases. The consultation document outlines each point for the public to consider.

The almost $30m in cuts proposed included saving $935,000 by pulling back city beautification services - such as the hanging baskets in Ngongotahā - and the removal of garden beds in the inner city. Grass would also be left longer between mows.

The savings equated to a 0.87 percent reduction in rates.

Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell.

Rotorua Mayor Tania Tapsell says the council is being proactive and has refocused proposed spending to be cost-effective. Photo: Andrew Warner / Rotorua Daily Post

Nearly $800,000 was suggested to be saved in core infrastructure spend, including by reducing kerbside sweeping, carrying out less maintenance on parks and having less frequent replacement of signs, road marking, cycle stands and seats, as well as the removal of some hazards - such as large trees - from roadsides, and the reduction of some rural vegetation controls to zero.

The consultation document noted this could have negative impacts to amenities and lead to increased costs next year.

Alternative funding was suggested for cycleway and path enhancements - saving about $400,000 - by using government grants of $2.5m.

For the proposed changes to sports and recreation spending, there would be a 0.22 percent rates drop. Costs would be cut by $3.25m.

This impacted planned improvements to sports fields as well as investment into new trails in the Whakarewarewa Forest.

The document detailed a proposed pull-back on arts and creative communities funding of $728,000 and said the council sought to balance savings against the level of funding required to grow and sustain a vibrant arts and culture offering.

Proposed changes were that new public artwork funding would be lowered, as well as reducing capacity and resourcing in its facilities and venues for arts development, creative development and supporting the volunteer network.

It also proposed cutting library hours by closing it on Sundays, saving $106,700.

About $1m would be saved by delaying an upgrade of the Sala St Cemetery Chapel, and more than $370,000 from stopping museum and waste education.

The Rotorua Museum educational services taught local history to about 6000 local students a year.

"It is the view of [the] council that education is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and therefore [the] council proposes to relinquish its role in providing education services in the museum."

The largest proposed cut, of more than $18.5m, was to economic development funding. That was the amount previously proposed for projects in the council's Economic Recovery Fund. It said there were no suitable projects identified.

Another area where the council proposed cuts was a community well-being investment. It suggested saving $665,000.

Councillors came to the proposed 7.2 percent rates increase through a series of public excluded workshops and a meeting.

The full list of what was proposed, and what councillors voted on to form the consultation document, can be found on the council website.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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