Staff layoffs, rates holiday not options for Ōpōtiki

7:42 pm on 8 April 2020

Ōpōtiki District Council is still "getting to grips" with the national lockdown and what it will mean for the team through the following recovery process, however, it says staff layoffs are not the answer.

Opotiki District Council is the only council to have an all-female leadership team. 
From left chief executive Aileen Lawrie, mayor Lyn Riesterer and deputy mayor Shona Browne.

Ōpōtiki District Council's all-female leadership team: from left, chief executive Aileen Lawrie, mayor Lyn Riesterer and deputy mayor Shona Browne Photo: Charlotte Jones / LDR

Councils across the country are being asked to consider matters such as rate freezes, how to consult on annual plans, what this will mean for local government deadlines, and how they will ensure key projects aren't delayed.

Despite this, staff are still working hard to ensure essential services continue in the Ōpōtiki district.

Council chief executive Aileen Lawrie said in the last two weeks, she had been overwhelmed by the effort of staff on duty and the community was "so fortunate" to have them working for the district.

"The transition into this strange, new way of working was made possible because of the flexibility and talents of the team," she said.

"Right now, we are all incredibly busy and no one has been offered redundancy or has had a role disestablished.

"So much of what the council does is 'essential' - water, wastewater, rubbish, roads, consents, compliance, licensing, and all those essential services make up more than three quarters of our day-to-day operations.

"Some staff are redeployed into civil defence roles and Covid-19 specific activities, and others are backfilling the roles they left. Others will have a backlog of business as usual work to complete when we are able to resume activities in a more normal way," she said.

Ms Lawrie said it was still too early to know what the "other side" would look like for the council but they were a small team and it was hard to imagine how much "skinnier" they could get.

"Often recruiting for specialist and technical roles for Ōpōtiki can be a challenge, so right now we are focussed on holding on to the great people we have," she said.

"It means that like other businesses, we are looking into the government subsidy for employees as well."

Some councils have floated the idea of giving their residents a rates holiday, but Ōpōtiki mayor Lyn Riesterer said this would be unlikely to happen in the district.

She said the council already had the lowest rates in the North Island and the majority of rates, well over 60 percent, went to providing essential services.

"It would be impossible to cut rates because you would have to look at which essential service you would be cutting as well," Ms Riesterer said.

"Would it be rubbish, or the library, we simply can't afford it."

Ms Riesterer said Ōpōtiki's rates often appeared larger than they were because the district council also collected rates for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

At the last council meeting, Ōpōtiki councillors spoke about how they would consult on their upcoming annual plan and Ms Riesterer said they decided not to.

She said the annual plan was no different to what was laid out in the long-term plan and what council had already been working towards. The councillors would now concentrate solely on the long-term plan and would be in contact via video with each other.

However, the council would need to look at juggling projects and prioritising what needed to be done first.

"The harbour development and new library will still be going ahead, those are our two main projects," Ms Riesterer said.

"We need to think about what to do as soon as possible and what will help our community the most. We're thinking about what will provide immediate help for our community throughout the recovery phase, which will occur over the next two-to-five years. Both these projects will provide jobs throughout this time."

However, due to the lockdown, decisions haven't been finalised and the council is waiting on several reports before making key decisions.

"It is a moving framework, and we are not sure how long we will be in lockdown," Ms Riesterer said.

"Things have changed so quickly in a week for all of New Zealand. One week we were celebrating the harbour funding, the next we were in lockdown. This is a bewildering time of our lives.

"We are now turning our minds to what needs to be done. We need to be nimble, brave and bold in our decision-making."

Ms Riesterer said she would love to see some kind of group project between Ōpōtiki, Kawerau and Whakatāne district councils come to fruition, but for now, the district needed to make it through the day-to-day challenges of Covid-19.

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