Environment, bus services the winners

Photo: Supplied
Photo: supplied
Spending big on large-scale environmental projects and scaling up bus services in Dunedin and Queenstown got the tick from Otago regional councillors yesterday.

Among the major decisions made on the first day of long-term plan deliberations at the Otago Regional Council yesterday, councillors voted 9-3 to establish a $2 million-a-year dedicated fund for large-scale environmental projects from year two of the 2024-34 plan.

The council had recommended a more modest $500,000 a year for the fund in its consultation document, but Cr Elliot Weir said for a Dunedin property worth $400,000 the rates impact would only be "an extra $5 a year".

"This fund — with $2m — has massive potential and really enables the community to take the lead on the environmental work that we’re championing as a council."

Chairwoman Cr Gretchen Robertson said the fund was "about supporting community and the work they are doing — and want to do".

About two-thirds of submitters wanted the council to create a fund, and 60% of those submitters wanted $2m in the fund.

Large-scale community-led environmental projects needed an initial funding commitment in order to attain partnership funding, Cr Robertson said.

She believed that for every $1 invested in these projects the council "harvested" $4 to $5 in in-kind community investment.

"In Otago, we’ve got some projects that are leading in a national space in terms of biosecurity, biodiversity and water-quality work.

"It’s there, it’s being led by the community, and that’s what we’re about — local government supporting what our community wants from us."

Crs Gary Kelliher, Michael Laws and Andrew Noone voted against the $2m fund.

Yesterday, councillors also voted in extra services on popular Dunedin bus routes for Pine Hill, Calton Hill, Opoho and Shiel Hill.

They voted for work to continue on replacing the city’s diesel buses with electric buses — for all buses to be zero-emission by 2035.

They voted for bus services to operate longer hours in Queenstown, for improved bus timetables in the resort, upgrading the fleet there and retaining ferry services.

The total cost of the Queenstown work programme over 10 years was $194m, consultation documents said.

The total rates impact over the span was $64m.

In Dunedin, the total cost of the preferred work programme over 10 years was $315m, with a rates impact of $120m.

At the meeting, councillors opted to create a new general rate, as consulted upon, such that a new 20% Otago-wide rate would be created for public transport with communities near the services paying the remaining 80%.

Before the deliberations, chief executive Richard Saunders said a staff spending review had uncovered about $3.5m in savings in the first year of the plan.

There were some "small deferrals" to some council work programmes, but overall the organisation would achieve the work it had proposed for consultation.

The review resulted in a reduction in the number of new staff required, he said.

The staff numbers had been proposed to increase from 352.2 full-time-equivalent positions (FTE) to 364.8 FTE by the end of the plan.

After the review, and "based on the operating environment at the moment", staff numbers would now only increase to 359.3 FTE.

A reduction in capital spending meant borrowing would no longer hit $105m by year 10 of the plan and the council’s net debt would reduce by $10m to $95m.

Decisions at yesterday’s deliberations, during a finance committee meeting, will be ratified at a full council meeting.