Whangarei's controversial civic centre upsize goes ahead

7:31 pm on 27 February 2020

Whangarei ratepayers are to get an upsized $48 million new civic centre - without public consultation on its increased cost.

Aerials, RSA, Old Library, New Library, former RSA bowling green, Rust Ave, Whangarei.

New upsized $48 million Whangarei civic centre to be build on former RSA's bowling green in picture - part of a new civic precinct. Photo: Northern Advocate

Whangarei District Council (WDC) councillors on Thursday voted to go ahead with a bigger building - without any public consultation on the increase.

They chose to go with a 7000 square metre civic centre - in so doing committing ratepayers to spend $10 million more than initially budgeted for a smaller $38 million, 5500 square metre civic centre settled on just 20 months ago.

"The decision (we've made today) is one we have made to ensure a facility that's future-proofed for the next 50 years," WDC Mayor Sheryl Mai said after the meeting decision.

Just over 70 per cent of WDC's 14 councillors voted in favour of the supersizing. Councillors voted 10 to three - with one abstention - in favour of the upsized civic centre.

Mayor Sheryl Mai and councillors Greg Innes (deputy mayor), Gavin Benney, Ken Couper, Tricia Cutforth, Nick Connop, Shelley Deeming, Anna Murphy, Carol Peters and Greg Martin voted to go ahead with the building upsize.

Councillors Vince Cocurullo, Jane Golightly and Phil Halse voted against the upsize. Councillor Simon Reid abstained.

The councillors debated the issue for 57 minutes in an intense, vociferous and sometimes heated example of local democracy in action that at one stage saw a councillor's voice crack with emotion.

All spoke up except for Golightly who voted against the upsize. She later said she had not voted in favour of the bigger centre because her ratepayers would not expect her to make a decision to proceed without having enough information at hand. She couldn't do so without being able to see a design for the building.

Mai said, as was common local government practice, the size of the civic centre budget had to be established before design and work contract negotiations could follow.

She said public consultation was not required for deciding on the extra $10 million budget spend for an upsized civic centre.

Mayor Sheryl Mai. First meeting of new Whangarei District Council. 4 November 2019

Sheryl Mai. Photo: Northern Advocate / Michael Cunningham

Mai kicked off debate by telling the meeting proposed changes to boost the civic centre scope would lead to increased costs, but they fell below the threshold for being an issue of enough significance under council's significance and engagement policy to trigger the need for further public consultation before a decision was made. An issue needed to trigger two or more of the significance assessment criteria to be deemed significant and therefore needing to go out to public consultation.

The five significance and engagement criteria are: impact on council's direction, change in council's current level of service, level of public impact and/or interest, impact on council's capability (non-cost) and net financial cost/revenue of implementation, excluding any financial impact already included in a Long Term Plan or Annual Plan.

Lack of a building design drawing emerged as perhaps the major point of contention - among opponents and proponents alike - during councillors' decision making debate.

Alan Adcock, WDC general manager corporate said in the wake of today's decision, a design could now be put together. This would be available by June.

He said it had not been possible to develop a civic centre design for the project to date as key recent developments enabling critical aspects of final decision making on building size had not been fully dealt with until as recently as last year.

Incoming October 2019-elected Northland Regional Council councillors had only just, towards the end of last year, decided not to proceed with going in together with WDC on a building combining both organisations' staff. Discussion on where the across-councils/New Zealand Transport Agency coalition (NZTA) Northland Transportation Alliance was to be housed had also only recently been finalised.

Adcock said as a result of this, the now-selected Rust Avenue site hadn't been finalised until the end of the year. Building size, foundation and footprint were all aspects influenced by the result of these factors.

Mai moved the civic centre scope and budget review agenda item. It was seconded by councillor Shelley Deeming, one of two councillors whose on the council civic centre working party.

"The public expects council to be forward planning - 30 to 50 to 100 years into the future," Deeming said.

It was a red herring to say the civic centre size increase would mean loading big extra costs now on current ratepayers.

A project such as the centre was funded intergenerationally over a long term through borrowing she said.

Deeming said deciding on civic centre size on Thursday was critical to then be able to go on to necessary design work.

The civic centre was not just for council staff to have a much-improved work environment, Deeming said.

It was for the public to more easily interact with staff within the building and its surrounds.

"It's not just a building, it will be a precinct," she said.

"We are all reluctant to increase funding, but we need to make the decision quite clear - we either design a building that's going to house our staff into the foreseeable future or something we'll need to go back to and extend within a few years," Deeming said.

Innes said the new upsized building provided a fit-for-purpose facility that also included contingency for growth.

The civic centre was not just a WDC building. It included NTA. Innes said he needed to be sure the alliance provided results-on-the-ground value for ratepayers.

Couper said the new upsized civic centre would hopefully create a better working environment and reduce WDC's 17 percent staff churn, which although not as high as some other councils, was a big cost.

Reid abstained from voting. He said he could not make a decision without seeing a building design first to know what he was signing up to.

Cocurullo slammed the new bigger building, challenging meeting procedural points of order and standing up to deliver a heated view. He called for staff to get a design plan and come back to council.

Cutforth meanwhile delivered an opposite position. She is one of the two councillors on the council civic centre working group.

"We have to be brave and recognise we are building a building for a hugely growing district," Cutforth said.

"We have staff in rented facilities costing a million dollars a year. There are overflow staff here and there.

"When I first came into the building (Forum North) I was surprised to see the conditions people are working in. People are squashed into rooms and occasionally a bit of paint is put on the walls to make them feel better," she said.

A six-star green-rated, really good quality build was needed now.

"We must build for a district-wide purpose," Cutforth said.

Connop said it was time to be positive. The building needed to be as sustainable as possible. It would cost a fair amount of money but Whangarei needed to have the best possible building it could have for the money spent.

Councillor Anna Murphy spoke strongly in favour of the building upsize.

"I support increasing the budget to see us going forward," Murphy said.

She said it was great to see the work that had already gone in to date towards shaping pending building design.

But Councillor Phil Halse said he was voting against the proposal.

"There is no plan, no specs and no hope," Halse said.

Whangarei's Hundertwasser build was a case in point where a $13.4m project had now blown out to $30m.

"And we still don't know the final cost for that," he said.

Councillor Gavin Benney grilled Adcock asking what guarantee there was the $10m extra spend and upsized $48m civic centre option would not further blow out in price.

Adcock said an open-book approach with very robust checking, cross checking and ongoing monitoring of margins, quotes and costs involved in the civic centre was already part of the project.

Auckland-based The Building Intelligence Group was contracted to project manage the civic centre build. Auckland-based Canam Construction has been chosen as lead contractor for the building.

Auckland based architect Kerry Avery, from Avery Team Architects, is detailed to design the building, pending the council decision.

Costs of about $6000 to $6500 per square metre for the building were high Benney said.

Adcock said his research of similar builds around New Zealand showed a cost range of $4000 to $9000 per square.

The new civic centre building $6000 to $6500 per metre cost included $1900 a square metre for fit out - and foundations up to 25 metres deep.

Murphy said there was no point proceeding with the smaller $38m building which would not be a cheaper option in the long term when more space was required to meet staffing to deal with district growth.

"We don't want a tack on," Murphy said.

Martin said he voted in favour of the increased building option but wanted to be reassured around potential for cost overrun.

Meanwhile Peters also spoke in favour of the upsized centre.

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