Economy will rule council term

Those who claim the race for the Dunedin mayoralty lacks a big issue should look no further than the dole queue.

Or, to quote former United States President Bill Clinton: ''It's the economy, stupid.''

The state of the city's economy is emerging as a major fault line as the nine candidates vying for Dunedin's top job prepare to face the voters.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull is facing challenges from eight contenders, most of whom have identified the economy as a key priority to be addressed in the next term.

And well they might, as the city, its council already hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, stares down the barrel of job losses and rising unemployment.

Throughout Otago, unemployment is up from 4.6% to 6.3% in the year to June, giving the province the dubious honour of the highest unemployment rate in the South Island.

And Dunedin, a city already reeling from job losses at the Hillside workshops, faces the loss of 73 more when New Zealand Post's Dunedin mail sorting centre closes next year, and fears of another 85 if Invermay's scientists are asked to move north.

While the Hillside job losses have been put down by some to the harsh realities of change faced by older industries, the same cannot be said of Invermay.

It is a big part of the city's high-tech and research-driven economy of the future, as envisaged by the city's new economic development strategy.

The impact of so many leading-edge jobs would ripple through the rest of the city, even more than Hillside's closure did for businesses depending on it, and raises some important questions.

Just how much can, or should, Dunedin's next mayor do to encourage economic development and job creation in the city?Are the candidates promising to do enough, and can they deliver on their promises?

Mr Cull hopes his record will stand up to scrutiny, pointing to the development of the city's economic development strategy, burgeoning links with China and the potential for growth within the renewable energy sector.

His rivals accuse Mr Cull of sitting on his hands, but are split on exactly what it is they would do differently.

Cr Lee Vandervis wants the council to do more to ''facilitate'' job creation by the private sector, but also wants a unitary council - presumably meaning more job losses - by merging the DCC and Otago Regional Council.

Former Act New Zealand MP Hilary Calvert thinks the council should do more to find out from businesses what they need to take on extra staff, as well as a permanent lobbyist in Wellington.

Andrew Whiley has called for more red carpet, not red tape, while welcoming all comers to Dunedin.

Green Party candidate Aaron Hawkins wants more focus on renewables and a Dunedin shop to promote the city in Brazil, while Kevin Dwyer wants Dunedin airport's runway extended.

Former United Future candidate Pete George wants more engagement with the Otago Chamber of Commerce and more campaigning by the council, while Olivier Lequeux has suggested more council support to lure businesses to the city.

The ninth candidate, Steve McGregor, wants to develop the city's tourism potential to tap greater financial returns.

The true test will be whether any of Mr Cull's rivals, if elected as mayor or a councillor, can attract enough support from their colleagues around the council table to implement their ideas.

They can also expected to have some surprises to grapple with, including the yet-to-be-revealed cost of repairs to the damaged St Clair sea wall and what influence - if any - they can have on the debate over oil and gas exploration off the Dunedin coast.

But perhaps the first challenge to be faced after the election, either by Mr Cull or whoever unseats him as mayor, will be the make-up of the council itself.

An exodus of experienced councillors is guaranteed next month, as four - Crs Bill Acklin, Syd Brown, Neil Collins and Colin Weatherall - quit local politics and a fifth, Cr Fliss Butcher, seeks the Waitaki mayoralty. That means an influx of fresh blood after the election, raising questions about the composition of the next council and who will hold the balance of power.

For the past three years, Mr Cull's Greater Dunedin grouping - also comprising deputy mayor Chris Staynes and Crs Jinty MacTavish, Richard Thomson and Kate Wilson - have exerted a strong, but not overwhelming, influence on decision-making.

It remains to be seen whether voters' preferences will strengthen Greater Dunedin's hand this time around - and through them Mr Cull's - or whether incoming councillors will resist the group's efforts and opt for another path.

Whatever the outcome, the council will still face tough decisions from the outset, beginning with what to spend and cut to stay within the self-imposed 3% rates increase limit set for next year's budget round.

And councillors will have to hold the course for the rest of the three-year term, faced with the demands of continued austerity until the council's finances began to recover from 2021.

Core council debt - excluding that of its companies and the stadium - is now expected to peak at $272 million in 2015-16, before beginning a slow decline from then on.

The council aims to get the figure down to $200 million by 2021-22, but that will depend on the discipline of future councils - beginning with those elected on October 12.

The Forsyth Barr Stadium may not be the ideological fault line through the city that it was at the last election, but there is plenty at stake for voters to care about.

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