Cromwell community gearing up for fight over assets

The Cromwell community is drawing battle lines and preparing to fight to retain assets amassed in...
The Cromwell community is drawing battle lines and preparing to fight to retain assets amassed in the town over decades. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
A proposal by Central Otago District Council (CODC) chief executive Peter Kelly to strip the region’s community boards of their delegated authority, effectively reducing their decision-making capacity and removing their ability to spend without council oversight in some expenditure areas, has raised the ire of Cromwell locals.

The loss of its delegated authority removes community board decision-making on maintaining and upgrading community centres, public halls and museums, as well as parks and cemeteries.

Questions have been raised over what will happen to Cromwell’s pool of assets, which have been paid for and invested in by the town’s ratepayers over decades since the Clyde Dam days — and what the change would mean for progress of the long-awaited Cromwell Memorial Hall rebuild.

The Cromwell Community Board is progressing with the $42.8 million project. Up to $7m of it is to be funded by land sales.

Social media has lit up with members of the public voicing their concerns and anger, and trying to grasp the proposal’s ramifications, not only for Cromwell, but the across the wider district.

It is not just the potential loss of delegated authority that has people up in arms, but the process — or seemingly, the lack of it — after community boards were given until last Sunday to make a written submission to the council’s governance manager.

Depending on when the various community boards were scheduled to meet, that gave them from three weeks to just three days to determine their position as a board.

They could then make a presentation to the council on February 28.

Last week the Cromwell Community Board issued a public statement slamming the proposal as an "asset grab", driven by "jealousy that Cromwell somehow has more than the rest of the district".

"This is an asset grab from Cromwell being rushed to fund shortfalls and debt," it said.

The statement was signed by all seven board members, including Central Otago deputy mayor Neil Gillespie, and board chairwoman Anna Harrison.

Board members said they were concerned about a lack of consultation and supporting information for the plan.

At Monday’s community board meeting the public gallery was packed as former board member Werner Murray made a presentation in support of the board, drawing attention to an historic memorandum of understanding between the Crown and the former Cromwell borough at the time of its amalgamation with the CODC in 1989.

Mr Murray told board members research in progress by community group Residents for Responsible Development Cromwell (R4RDC) — a group formed in 2019 to fight Plan Change 13 — had brought the memorandum to light.

In 1981 the Cromwell Borough Council had taken out a very large loan with the Crown to pay for the infrastructure, assets and land to rebuild the town before it was flooded after the completion of the Clyde Dam, he said.

The loan was being paid back to the Crown, as a special rate on top of the usual town rates — the total rates were somewhere between 20%-25% extra.

Cromwell did not want to give these hard-earned assets up when amalgamated, Mr Murray said.

"In order to appease the Cromwell Borough Council, and sweeten the deal, the government inserted a clause into the final draft of the amalgamation deal when CODC was formed, that dealt with the special circumstances of Cromwell," he said.

"The new clause stated that the new district council could establish a committee to negotiate with the Crown on managing and disposing of crown assets. It also stated that the new district council must consult with the Cromwell Community Board when considering matters referred to it under a memorandum of understanding, dated 11 May 1989.

"The MOU was signed between the Cromwell Borough Council and the Crown," he said.

Deputy mayor Mr Gillespie queried the relevance of the agreement between the Crown and the borough council and how it connected to the CODC.

"We’re still trying to figure that out," Mr Murray said.

"That memorandum is in a locker that we’ve requested but haven’t seen yet, . other than from a newspaper clipping ... I’m assuming it’s a contract of sorts."

The headline of that newspaper clipping read "Cromwell Borough lost its fight to be included in the Queenstown District Council last night." It was dated June 13, 1989.

Mrs Harrison acknowledged there were a lot of historical documents and a lot of "anecdotal historical information that many community members and past elected members hold".

"Of course, finding that information and then making the connections to whether or not that’s relevant today, or they’ve been usurped over time with other documents, is a big piece of work that people sitting around this table probably don’t necessarily have the skills, the funds or the time to establish — but we recognise that your group [R4RDC] is working in the background to find that stuff," she said.

Cromwell is not the only community board which has flagged concerns about the proposed changes.

The Teviot Valley Community Board is set to make a verbal submission to the council at the February meeting.

During the public forum of the board meeting in Roxburgh last week, two former community board members expressed concerns the proposed changes would lead to a loss of community voice.