'Nonsense' courthouse costs


Would earthquake strengthening of Dunedin's courthouse really cost more than $15million as officials claim?

Or is this another example where supposed post-earthquake costs are used as an excuse?

Or can the Government simply not design and commission building work for reasonable prices?

There is probably a bit of both.

Government projects seem to veer between the penny-pinching and the gold-plated.

The recent Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment head office is a recent classic illustration of the latter.

The bureaucrats managed to spend $70,000 on a sign outside its headquarters, $24,000 on a fridge and $400 on a hair straightener.

Supposedly, the reception area cost $5million.

Despite that sort of extravagance, the MBIE relocation was $2million under budget.

By those standards, the $15million begins to no longer seem so unbelievable.

It also seems less extraordinary because the Government managed to spend a significant $6.8million outfitting the ''temporary'' courthouse in High St.

Nevertheless, the $15million figure is, as Dunedin city councillor David Benson-Pope said, ''nonsense''.

A 2012 estimate for the work was just $2.5million.

Now, it has soared. Justice and Courts Minister Amy Adams released the new figure last week but has refused to answer questions on it, and a council-backed task force is not allowed to see the details because of ''commercial considerations''.

This is not good enough, a point reinforced by dumbfounded Dunedin building experts who have called the figure ''absolutely ridiculous'', among other descriptions.

As Dunedin structural engineer Stephen Macknight said, the ''reluctance'' to release figures ''makes you think there's a lot more there than just strengthening''.

Based on his work, the $15million could be enough for 20 buildings.

The ''magnitude and cost'' of the plan meant ''Cabinet rules'' kick in, forcing a Treasury assessment process before the plan could be approved by Cabinet.

More dithering is taking place when decisive and sensible action should have been taken long ago.

Faith in official figures is further undermined by the Oamaru courthouse debacle.

When it was first closed, the strengthening price tag was put at $5million.

Locals believed the cost should have been less than $500,000, and then the courts minister slashed the official figure to between $1million and $2million.

Remember, too, that the small single-storey Balclutha courthouse was closed because of earthquake risk.

Such is the lack of credibility in Government reports, as well as concern over the accuracy of earthquake assessment, that the people of South Otago have a right to be suspicious.

As Cr Benson-Pope suggested, a network of skilled heritage building people in Dunedin could be drawn into the project.

Instead, ''overzealous'' ''highly paid''

bureaucrats were overreacting to perceived earthquake risk.

The Dunedin courthouse is one of the city's finest historic buildings, and part of a heritage cluster impossible to match anywhere in this country.

Its High Court room is redolent with style and history, and its traditions and grandeur add to the respect for, and force of, the law.

Public feeling about the courthouse is evident and support came quickly for the petition to save the building.

That is encouraging, as is council support.

Less heartening has been the response of Dunedin-based National MP Michael Woodhouse.

He needs to do more than bring concern to the attention of the Minister for Courts.

The cost estimates and the experience over the temporary courthouse and other government projects undermine faith in the Government as a provider and manager.

That is a shame because the Government represents us all and in principle it should be positive it can provide services and manage public affairs.

In practice, however, we see too many cases of mismanagement, misjudgement and waste.

To safeguard its future and that of court services in Dunedin, the courthouse must be used for the purpose for which it was built.

We await an ''unequivocal commitment'' from the Government to return court services to their Dunedin home.

It is not good enough for Ms Adams to say her ''hope and expectation'' is that it will happen.

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