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Published: 2008-07-22 00:00:00

From July 1, Environment Waikato stopped collecting money from its ratepayers to help pay for the Animal Health Board’s bovine Tb eradication programme. Councillor Andra Neeley explains the regional council’s position.

When a long and successful partnership ends, it is inevitable there will be questions. That’s certainly been the case over Environment Waikato’s decision to stop collecting the $630,000 ‘regional share’ of the Animal Health Board’s vector control programme in the 2008/09 year.

I can assure levy payers and ratepayers alike that Environment Waikato’s decision has been made in the interests of the wider regional community after much deliberation.

The issue is EW can’t simply use its regional biosecurity rate – which all ratepayers pay - to fund work that is the responsibility of the AHB, done largely for the benefit of cattle and deer farmers.

To explain why the council could no longer provide a rating service to the AHB, it is necessary to revisit recent history and to also take into account the realities of local government.

Up until the beginning of this month, Environment Waikato collected the 10 per cent regional share from its ratepayers, as a service to the AHB, and in recognition of the efficiencies achieved by EW staff managing pest management contracts for both Tb vector control and biodiversity outcomes.

It’s fair to say EW was left somewhat in the lurch earlier this year when the AHB stopped the council vector management contract with little notice, creating staffing and budgetary implications for the contract management of EW’s own pest management programmes.

The AHB has one mission only - to eradicate bovine Tb from New Zealand. Its operations are funded 50 per cent by central government, 40 per cent by farmers throughout New Zealand and 10 per cent by regional shares.

Environment Waikato has a much wider legislative mandate in that it is responsible for enhancing biodiversity in the Waikato region. This means it must invest in controlling all pests, not just the possums that spread Tb to cattle. A possum, a rat, a ferret – all threaten our biodiversity whether a carrier of Tb or not.

Our primary focus on biodiversity came to the fore three years ago when it became evident the AHB would be reducing operations in Waikato to concentrate its resources in areas with greater numbers of Tb infected herds.

The council was faced with a decision – should it walk away from killing possums now that the number of Tb-infected herds was down, or should it protect the biodiversity gains that had been achieved as a positive spin-off from the Tb programme?

The council consulted its communities, including farmers and environmental groups. The message was clear: nobody could stomach the thought of possum numbers rebounding to the levels of the 1970s.

To support regional biodiversity, a new funding policy was prepared and consulted on last year. It combined five separate biosecurity rates into a single rate based on capital value, paid by all regional ratepayers.

Where was the AHB throughout this consultation? Silent.

At this point, EW expected to continue the contract-management role it had held for the AHB for the past 15 years – remember, the staff required to do the regional biodiversity programme were also doing the AHB work, ensuring efficiencies in equipment, information and overheads.

Fast forward to this year when the AHB stopped the council vector management contract with little notice.

The council’s choices were to incorporate the regional share into its own pest control programmes; continue to pay the regional share and raise rates $630,000 (1.2 per cent), or cut the regional biodiversity programme to divert funds to do the AHB’s job.

Hard choices – EW’s ratepayers overwhelmingly want protection of the environment but the council is under pressure to keep rates down. In addition, EW has no legislative obligation to collect AHB’s regional share and its rate funding mechanism is for regional biodiversity, not producer-benefit operations.

The AHB asked EW to raise another $630,000 on top of its own programmes to fund the regional share. But the council can’t – and shouldn’t – do that without first consulting with the community. That’s good government.

It’s an option to consult with the farming community next year over a targeted rate for killing Tb possums.

But it may be better to have the AHB rate farmers directly for the regional share and EW has offered its rating data so the AHB can do this.

Many farmers would welcome the AHB being accountable to them, and nothing improves accountability more than having to post a bill to someone. The AHB has been largely invisible – their charges hidden in regional council rates and slaughter charges and the work done by pest contractors.

In the end, it comes down to accountability. EW has fronted up – the council has faced pressure to reduce rates while maintaining essential pest control programmes to meet its legal responsibilities to enhance diversity.

The AHB needs to put in place mechanisms that allow it to achieve its obligations under its own national pest management strategy.