Public urged to have say on possible Aurora sale

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
A possible sale of Aurora Energy has been labelled one of the Dunedin City Council’s biggest decisions in years and public input will soon be sought.

Cr Brent Weatherall at a meeting yesterday said he expected a record number of public submissions.

Feedback was often driven by project opponents and it would be important to hear also from people in favour of a proposed sale, he said.

Cr Marie Laufiso, who last week voted against pitching a potential sale to the public, said she hoped the council received overwhelming feedback against the proposal.

"I deplore neoliberal economics, which we are all enslaved to."

Aurora owns and operates the electricity distribution networks for Dunedin, Central Otago and Queenstown.

Its debt is projected to be about $576 million by mid-2025 and this would be paid after any sale.

It is expected hundreds of millions of dollars would be left over to form the base of a diversified council investment fund.

Several councillors emphasised the importance of public input into the process, and of preparing balanced, informative and accessible material for people to consider.

Public consultation will run from March 28 until noon, May 2.

The council voted 14-0 to endorse the approach for engaging with the public.

Cr Laufiso abstained.

Cr Jim O’Malley — who asked many questions and who was not able to be at last week’s meeting — had a clause added about Aurora’s strategic importance, for balance.

Transport, water and electricity were key components in city planning and the council could cede influence on one of those networks, he said.

There could be a temptation for a new operator to "run to fail", as past councils had.

Cr Lee Vandervis said the council was faced with "rocketing" group debt, and it had loaded more than $100m of debt on its companies over the years.

His only worry about a possible sale of Aurora was the potential for the council to fritter away the proceeds, he said.

Dunedin Mayor Jules Radich after the meeting said the council would consider all feedback before making a decision.

"This is an important opportunity for people to have their say on what could easily be the most significant decision made by council in many years.

"We encourage everyone — especially Dunedin ratepayers and Aurora customers — to let us know what they think."

Selling Aurora was the council’s preferred option, but the alternative of keeping it would also be detailed in consultation.

The council would fairly represent pros and cons of each option.

During the meeting, Mr Radich described the proposal as selling a company, but not an asset, because value would be retained in a different form.

"This is a pathway to financial sustainability for the council."

Council chief executive Sandy Graham said an investment fund formed out of the sale proceeds could be worth "many" hundreds of millions of dollars.

The plan could be for such a base to produce consistent income, but this would not affect a proposed rates rise of 17.5% for 2024-25.

Cr Sophie Barker said she was aware people were worried about the council selling "the family silver", and future power prices, but they were also worried about rising rates, the debt burden and interest costs.

Deputy mayor Cherry Lucas said Aurora had a massive capital programme ahead of it and it was a growth asset.

"It needs access to equity, which we can’t provide."