Judgement day looms on DCC debt

In six weeks, Dunedin residents will have the opportunity to have their say on the city's future at the 2010 local government elections. Dunedin City Council reporter David Loughrey looks at the council's record in the last triennium, considers the issues that will dominate the election, and asks: Does the council listens to its citizens?

The city's roofed stadium was the big issue at the last election, but with building of the facility now well advanced, that debate has evolved.

Instead of the focusing on a "yes" or "no" for the stadium, campaigns begun by challengers to the incumbents have usually included criticism of the debt created by the stadium and other multimillion-dollar projects.

There has also been widespread criticism that the council does not listen to the many residents who actually take the time to get involved in the political process through consultation.

Despite that, the present council, and its predecessors, can point to some major initiatives, it says, that most would agree have changed the city for the better.

Most Dunedin residents are drinking top-quality water after the 2005 completion of the $35.2 million Southern Water Treatment Plant.

The city's beaches were given a clean bill of health last year, staying open every day since the new $37 million Tahuna outfall pipe was commissioned in January, 2009.

While it passed with limited discussion, that had the remarkable result of finally cleaning up, for instance, Tomahawk beach, in the past a blight on the city that had been contaminated and stinking of sewage from the Lawyers Head outfall for more than 100 years.

It also meant the end of another embarrassment for the city, the regular closures of city beaches.

Those closures, which came with warnings from the council and Public Health South against swimming, surfing, or paddling because of harmful bacteria, were a bad look for residents and visitors alike.

Thanks to both the dogged efforts of the Otago Theatre Trust, and an almost $4.8 million funding boost from the council, Dunedin will also soon have a redeveloped Regent Theatre.

The council-owned Dunedin Centre and town hall will benefit from a major make-over, without what became known as the "glass clip-on", extension on to Harrop St.

The council eventually dropped that aspect after consistent opposition, and has since pointed to that decision as an example that it did, indeed, listen to the people during consultation.

Another aspect of the council's spending it could point to as an occasion when it listened to the public, was the purchase of 328ha of land at Harbour Cone in 2008.

The $2.8 million purchase came after significant public pressure, amid concern the block of land would be split up.

Finally, of course, from next year, the city will have, like it or not, New Zealand's largest indoor arena, the Forsyth Barr Stadium, advertised as the only covered natural-turf stadium in the world.

All those initiatives, though, have come at a cost.

In the next financial year the council's total debt will reach its forecast peak of close to $350 million.

The council will break through its self-imposed 8% limit on the ratio of interest to total revenue until the 2016-17 year, though it has argued that ratio is less than the 10% set by most other councils in New Zealand.

The debt should begin to lessen from 2013, but only if new spending is reined in, meaning no major new projects until the city reaches a point of having what council finance and corporate support general manager Athol Stephens has described as "head room".

That point will not be reached, in his opinion, until about 2019.

Decisions the city has made will also affect the council's group of companies, which some say will be burdened by the dividends its owners will require.

So while the city might have something to show from the hundreds of millions of dollars spent, it could struggle to deal with issues that remain unfunded in its long-term plan.

That includes what could be major work required to shore up the sand hills from St Clair to St Kilda beaches, which every year now suffer from the encroachment of the ocean.

And while drinking water comes clean from treatment plants, the council's three waters strategy identified 50% of Dunedin's $1.4 billion network of pipes and other water infrastructure would need to be replaced by 2060.

Aside from those issues, the council has faced plenty of unwanted reaction, and media coverage, as it has worked, sometimes tortuously, through some contentious issues.

In the past three years, it has managed to put off-side at various times its business community, industrial sector, and anyone who uses kerbside car parking.

Last year was notable for the long-running parking debacle, when major changes and cost increases for city parking prompted howls of protest from both the public and city businesses.

In July last year, the city instituted a new four-zone parking strategy for the central city, increased parking fees to $4 an hour in central George St, installed 153 new pay-and-display machines, and ended free time-limited parking in some areas.

Business owners called meetings and began lobbying, and the city was forced into an embarrassing back down.

In the end, the council made more than 150 changes after working through about 175 complaints, and called for an independent report to discover how it got the strategy so wrong.

This week, the council's parking working party was still "tweaking" the system to get it right.

Another issue that raised hackles in the business community was the council's plan for the harbourside area.

A district plan change allowing the harbourside to be redeveloped with apartments, bars and cafes was approved early last year, after a nine-day hearing in 2008.

That caused fears among local industry operators they would be forced out of the area by new residents drawn to a cafe culture, who would complain about the noise and smell of industries that had operated for many decades in the wharf area.

In the end, the council managed to stave off what would have been a bitter Environment Court battle with the business community, by agreeing to drop much of stage two of its "50-year vision" for the area.

Negotiations on the matter are ongoing.

Dealing with the city's kerbside recycling was another issue that, if not as controversial, took a long time to resolve, with plenty of delays.

Major changes were announced last month, and from next year, every residence in Dunedin will have a 240-litre or 80-litre wheelie bin for non-glass recycling, while existing blue bins will be used for glass only, on alternate weeks.

The changes also came with a lower-than-expected household cost.

One surprising aspect of the change was the number of submissions the council received over the proposed changes, with more than 620 flooding in.

In the event, 40% agreed with the council's option, while 39% wanted the status quo.

But for other issues, including the stadium, the percentages against council proposals have been overwhelming.

That has not been the only case where the council heard the opposition, but stuck to its own plan - prompting regular complaints that elected representatives were not listening, and that consultation was a sham.

Opoho residents, for instance, fought long and hard against a plan to re-align Lovelock Ave, which runs through the Dunedin Botanic Garden.

Garden managers want to realign the avenue to allow more room for the Rhododendron Dell, relocation of propagation houses and administration buildings, and deal with what they said were safety issues, in a project supported by the Friends of the Dunedin Botanic Garden.

Residents opposed the plan, claiming the new alignment, next to the Northern Cemetery, would be too steep, too frosty in winter and too prone to sun-strike.

A resource consent hearing last year gave the project the go- ahead, but such was the opposition, the council allowed it one more outing at annual plan meetings in May.

The subject was the most debated topic at the hearings, with 160 submissions received; the vast majority in opposition.

Despite that, and despite a knife-edge vote, in May the council voted against a motion to remove $1 million from the council's budget for the project.

Councillors, including mayor Peter Chin, have argued consultation is not a numbers game; not a referendum.

But expectations are raised through the consultation process that speaking out will get a result, and, on many occasions, those expectations are dashed.

Cr Dave Cull, one of the higher profile challengers for the mayoralty, this week agreed consultation was not a matter of numbers.

"You can't just do it [make decisions] on numbers," Cr Cull said.

The council did, though, need to "draw back" in those situations and engage with the public on its concerns.

"It's not a referendum, it's not just numbers, but that amount of numbers should make us stop and think."

In the end, voters will have to decide whether any of the new candidates would listen more closely to their concerns.

On the election, Mr Chin said this week there were people concerned about the level of rate rises, "even though they were always heralded", and others vocal about one or other of the projects the council had undertaken.

Others were "very, very supportive" of the decisions the council had made.

"It's really a matter, then, in terms of the election, of which is the more predominant group."

- david.loughrey@odt.co.nz

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