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The Press – News Column May 5

Will city councillors find the courage to stop bingeing on your backpocket?

With May now unfolding, the oh-so-Long Term Plan is finally reaching the business end for the Christchurch City Council, with the hearings process set to play out.  It’s the ultimate test of this council’s mettle, an exacting measure of whether clear-eyed, frugal and bold leadership can trump the squealers, the deluded and the soft-heads who can’t resist bingeing on your backpocket. The omens don’t look good. The mayor unfairly dumped on the council’s insurer, who admirably gave the public a heads-up about the likely insurance settlement.  Civic Assurance’s  reality-check further call into question the council’s fairyland financial assumptions – predicated on receiving $900M in pay-outs. The council should renegotiate the cost-sharing agreement and approve the reinstatement of the Lancaster Park facility. Similarly, it looks inevitable that councillors should give up the ghost on breathing life into Kilmore’s concrete bunker, the beleaguered Town Hall, as repair-estimates balloon. Plus, CCHL’s capital divestment may well have to exceed $750million. Take the airport, which is fundamentally a property development company with some parking spaces for planes.  Why not sell a majority stake? To date, the most robust submission calling for inventive decision-making , from the Chamber of Commerce, has been pilloried and mangled by the online trolls. The Chamber’s call for the council to consider leasing space for its libraries, rather than owning the bricks and mortar, has been deplorably distorted as a call to “sell the libraries.” Challenging councillors to reconsider lavishing $85M on a new library building, is an eminently sensible example of how to relieve substantial strain from the capital programme.  Similarly, it’s ludicrous for the council to continue owning and operating golf courses and holiday parks, that run at a loss or require multi-million dollar repairs. If Rawhiti and South Brighton are such viable ventures – as their cheerleaders make out, a willing private operator will pick up the cudgels.  Bending the arc on the forecast rates track should be this council’s top priority. The current trajectory will see the Christchurch rates bill become the second highest of any metro council in New Zealand, after being one of the lowest. Some community organisations protested the council’s proposed 2% funding cut to community grants, by bursting into tears. Well, cry me a river. We should all be wailing over the proposed rates explosion, which will shaft the average ratepayer by 8.5% this year, and 33% over the next four years. Those annual hikes aren’t just unsustainable and unsupportable, but constitute a gross declaration of failure. A failure by councillors to get a grip on the brutal fiscal reality.

Mike’s weekly current affairs column, as published in The Press. May 5. http://www.stuff.co.nz

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