Irrigators say fees remission too little

Irrigators on the Lower Waitaki are to receive more than $80,000 back from Environment Canterbury, after an independent hearing commissioner upheld complaints they had been overcharged for resource consent applications - but some may want even more returned.

A total of 15 irrigators spoke to an Environment Canterbury (ECan) resource management hearing panel between September 2012 and March this year, in relation to complaints that additional charges had been levied to process 37 resource consents to take and use water from the Lower Waitaki catchment, as well as associated diversion, discharge and land-use activities.

The irrigators claimed final invoices received in June 2011 had been more than initially stated by ECan. In some cases, irrigators had been requested to pay 90% of fees upfront then received a final invoice almost identical to the initial charge, rather than the 10% they had expected.

The applications in question mostly related to the Hakataramea area and were lodged between 1998 and 2007. Many of them were subject to the call-in process by the Minister of the Environment in 2003.

However, independent hearing commissioner Emma Christmas last week partially remitted some of the extra costs.

In her decision, the commissioner included the remission of a proportion of the costs that exceeded the estimated costs and another $22,217 being part of the group costs to prepare the three shared group reports common to all applicants. Additional remitted costs, including consultants fees, and changes to GST, would bring the total remitted for the group to $86,401.67 .

Ms Christmas said although initial estimates had been given in ''good faith'', ECan had failed to keep applicants informed of rising costs.

''In my opinion, the significant increase in charges above the estimate without the applicants' knowledge is not reasonable. A proportion of these additional charges are, therefore, remitted.''

Waitaki Irrigators Collective (Wic) spokeswoman Elizabeth Soal said although Wic did not file a cost objection, 15 of its individual members did, and some may appeal the decision, because only a ''portion of the costs invoiced'' had been remitted.

''There is generally a level of disappointment with the decision, given that the final invoices received were significantly higher than what was originally provided by ECan as an estimate of costs, as applicants had to pay 90% of the estimated costs upfront.''

Ms Soal said the issue showed the need for councils to maintain good communication with consent applicants.

''The collective would encourage regional authorities to maintain robust, transparent, and timely accounting processes so that applicants in the future are able to have greater certainty as to what their likely overall costs will be in resource consent application processes.''

Attempts to contact affected irrigators were unsuccessful.

-andrew.ashton@odt.co.nz

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