Interest saving sparks debate

A saving with the potential to ease the Dunedin City Council's budget burden instead triggered accusations of ''imaginative accounting'' yesterday.

The debate began when councillors at yesterday's long-term plan deliberations were told the council's books now showed a $1.8 million interest underspend.

The favourable result reflected council cost-cutting, which had reduced the need to borrow for spending, in turn created an debt interest saving, council group chief financial officer Grant McKenzie said.

The result also reflected the position at the end of April, and the saving was expected to grow to more than $2 million by the end of the financial year, he said.

The revelation prompted Cr Richard Thomson to suggest $1 million be allocated to the University Oval cricket lights, and another $350,000 towards design work needed for the Mosgiel aquatic facility.

Another $30,000 could be given to the Otago Rural Fire Authority, which had requested support to provide a covered space for one of its water tankers, Cr Thomson suggested.

The floodlights won support from a majority of councillors, but not before Cr Lee Vandervis attacked the interest underspend as ''a piece of imaginative accounting''.

''It's not real money. It's simply more you are going to have to borrow.''

Mr McKenzie, speaking earlier, told councillors the underspend ''does not mean you have got an opportunity to go shopping'', but it was a ''genuine saving''.

The council's priority in the past had been to use surpluses for debt repayment, but whether to do so again was a decision for councillors, he said.

Cr Vandervis said the council needed to find up to $95 million in savings over the next 10 years to keep to its budget, which aimed to limit rates rises to no more than 3%.

Savings averaging $9.5 million a year needed to be found to achieve that, and the council had so far found about $2 million, he said.

Council chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose disagreed, saying his figure was inflated, and the actual savings required was $68 million over the 10-year period.

In addition, ongoing savings found early in the 10-year period could also be replicated in each subsequent year, multiplying the benefit and easing the budget burden considerably, she said.

That meant $1 million saved in the first year could be worth $10 million of the required savings over the 10-year plan, she said.

Mayor Dave Cull agreed the underspend was ''not free money'', but neither was it new debt.

His inclination would have been to use it to reduce council debt, but the council was already on a ''reasonably aggressive'' path to debt reduction, ''which we are sticking to'', he said.

The city also needed to balance spending and rates restraint against the need to keep investing in the city, he said.

Councillors were to decide how to allocate the rest of the underspend.

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