Tardy whitebaiters cough up fees

Whitebait stands on the West Coast are in hot demand and are often held intergenerationally but...
Whitebait stands on the West Coast are in hot demand and are often held intergenerationally but they attract annual resource consent administration fees with over $44,000 of debt being chased up by the West Coast Regional Council.  Photo: West Coast Regional Council

Just $2000 of a $44,000 whitebait stand debt remains to be paid to the West Coast Regional Council after it threatened tardy stand holders.

In the three months since the matter came up, the brisk turnaround in the whitebait debt was a matter for congratulations at the council's Risk and Assurance Committee on May 14.

At the same time, the council has now recovered a substantial portion of an overall $1.65 million in aged debt on its books at the end of December.

The total outstanding dropped to $702,718 by the end of March.

Earlier in March, the council formally adopted a new policy to address non-rates aged receivable debt with whitebait stand holders and gravel consent holders singled out.

People need to pay for a consent to take gravel from riverbeds.

"I would have thought if you don't pay your licence, there is no licence," Cr Peter Haddock said on March 5.

"We're not a benevolent society here."

At the end of December, the $1.65 million debt was more than 30 days old.

The council administers resource consents for 650 whitebait stand holders across the region but it was owed $44,076 of unpaid fees for 90 days or more.

That is despite the buying and selling of whitebait stands on West Coast rivers being in hot demand. They are lucrative in good years - to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in a good season for those who sell it.

Finance manager Tracy Fitzgerald said implementation of the new non-rates debt policy saw "considerable improvement" in debtors coughing up.

But more remained to be done.

"Whilst the improvement is encouraging a line should be drawn between this and the full implementation of the policy which will not be until after the annual report 2023-24 clean-up - and ongoing reconciliation work," she said.

"Since I've done this report, the whitebait debt has nearly been cleared - with only $2000 outstanding."

Gravel buildup in the Waiho River-bed beside Franz Josef township being managed by contractors....
Gravel buildup in the Waiho River-bed beside Franz Josef township being managed by contractors. The build-up of millions of cubic metres of gravel at the tourist hotspot is a hazard issue but further north gravel take is closely monitored by the West Coast Regional Council - and it requires a permit. Photo: Brendon McMahon

Ms Fitzgerald said the backlog in gravel consent fees, also amounting to $44,000, had now gone out for collection.

Cr Haddock said the turnaround was good, especially with the whitebait stands being given a June 30 deadline, "otherwise they risk losing their stands".

"That's a really good carrot," he said.

Committee chair Frank Dooley said taking a hard line worked.

"We need to be tough. All of this money is owed to ratepayers - it's ratepayers' funds."

Cr Brett Cummings said the gravel consent debt may be quite old and he wondered if some permit holders might now rescind their permits in light of the fees.

Ms Fitzgerald said that was now being analysed.

Cr Cummings said some consent holders had not been actively taking and anecdotally were now moving to rescind as the benefit of paying the fee was not necessarily reflected in a viable return.

Cr Dooley said that was their decision.

"At the end of the day, if they have an obligation to pay their debt to this council we are going to chase them."

He praised Ms Fitzgerald: "You've done a fantastic job."

Acting corporate services manager Aaron Prendergast also gave kudos for the debt turnaround. He said the strategy was part of the wider process to rebuild council's finance management capacity.

"I would expect this result is sustainable."

Chief executive Darryl Lew noted a revision of the gravel royalties was being consulted through the Long Term Plan but that was relative to location and demand.

"When you go down to South Westland, they can have as much gravel as they like," he joked, referring to the gravel problem in the likes of the Wanganui and Waiho river beds.

- By Brendon McMahon
Local Democracy reporter