4 Oct 2018

Debate over sale of Napier Port could lead to referendum

12:14 pm on 4 October 2018

Nearly half of Napier Port should be sold unless people are prepared to stomach rates' rises of more than 50 percent, local councillors say.

Container ship in commercial port of Napier, New Zealand.

Photo: 123rf

A proposal to sell up to 49 percent of the port through a public share offering will now go out for public consultation, after it was named councillors' preferred option.

Napier Port has had to turn away cruise and container ships because they could not be accommodated.

The port needed to spend between $320 million and $350m on an upgrade, including $142m on a new wharf.

It also needed to repay a nearly $90m debt.

To raise this cash, it would either have to up rates by 53 percent or, its preferred option, sell just under half the port to the public by listing it on the stock market.

Hawke's Bay Regional Council rates had already risen 30 percent in the last two years and "there was no more blood in the stone," councillor Fenton Wilson said at this morning's meeting.

It was a sentiment echoed by other councillors, who expressed concern the port should have been upgraded years ago.

A stock market listing was just one of the options under consideration. Selling a stake to an investor or a long-term lease to another operator were also considered.

Council chairman Rex Graham said while a long-term lease was initially the council's preferred option it changed its mind after consulting with the Maritime Union.

The union was in favour of continued 100 percent community ownership but understood this would be difficult to achieve, and some port workers had expressed interest in buying shares if there was an IPO.

Two regional councillors, Debbie Hewitt and Paul Bailey, voted against the proposal, saying they did not have a strong preference for any of the options.

"It is the jewel in crown of Hawke's Bay Regional Council's strategic assets and it's incredibly important that the public have their say," Ms Hewitt said.

The public now have four weeks to have their say on the issue, before the council makes its final decision.

Calls for a public referendum were dismissed by Mr Graham, who said the issue was too complex to be decided by referendum.

But council chief executive James Palmer said one could be called if 5 percent of the public wanted one.

"There is some urgency with this decision... there are vessels being turned away from the port.

"Every month that is delayed in terms of the capital funding is business being turned away from the port."

One of those campaigning for a referendum, business woman Anna Lorck, said there was no reason a referendum could not be held sooner.

It would cost about $50,000 to hold one at the same time as the election and about $250,000 to hold one outside of it, she said.

"But no one can put a price on democracy."

The regional council hoped to make a final decision on the port's future before the end of the year.