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Published: 2014-01-31 00:00:00

An average rate increase of 0.3 per cent to existing ratepayers, a big boost to work to protect water quality and solid funding for biodiversity and flood control feature in Waikato Regional Council’s 2014/15 draft budget signed off for public consultation yesterday.

Chairperson Paula Southgate said the council had arrived at an excellent financial forecast given the size of the council’s work programme. 

“Over the past few years we have focused on increasing the council’s efficiency and effectiveness and it’s good to see our efforts paying off this year,” she said. 

“While we have achieved this budget by concentrating on a few key projects, we need to signal now that there’s a lot of work ahead of us and we will have to be smart about finding further efficiencies.” 

Chief executive Vaughan Payne said staff had put forward a responsible draft budget aimed at delivering on the council’s strategic priorities. 

“It is an extremely positive start for this council to be able to increase service delivery while containing costs,” he said. 

The draft plan allows for an extra $2.2 million over each of the next two financial years on a collaborative process designed to ensure the most effective plan change possible to restore and protect the health of the Waikato and Waipa rivers. 

A staff report on the Healthy Rivers/Wai Ora project, which will develop a regional plan change for the rivers, said funding of $1.9 million was projected for 2014/15 for this process in the 2012-2022 Long Term Plan (LTP). 

During budget talks, councillors were told that total direct costs would be $4.8 million, offset by council savings elsewhere, meaning a net increase in council costs for the project when compared to the level forecast in the LTP. 

The staff report said the original $1.9 million budget envisaged the plan change would follow a traditional Resource Management Act (RMA) process. This would involve the council, iwi partners and the Waikato River Authority developing policy, and then consulting on it with stakeholders before notifying a plan change for public consultation.

However, it had been recognised that a collaborative process – involving iwi and a wide range of stakeholders – was a better way to develop effective policy, and a path which could also help avoid expensive court costs in future.

“The collaborative method is anticipated to deliver reduced litigation costs as there will be more ownership of the science and the process used to develop the policy and regulatory mechanisms,” the council was told.

Extra costs involved in collaboration would include the work of a Collaborative Stakeholder Group (CSG), which would come up with a recommended plan change, and a Technical Alliance of experts to provide the CSG with advice. Technical studies and extra staff would also be required. It was possible external funding from industry groups might offset some costs.

Cr Southgate said councillors were well aware of the community’s strong desire for action to protect waterways.

“We have to get on with this and we have to do it well. The community wants to see this council improve water quality across the region to help protect agricultural and tourism interests and also so people can enjoy fresh clean water for recreation and as a food source,” she said.

Councillors recognised the environmental, educational, tourism and community values of the internationally-lauded Maungatautari Ecological Island Project by continuing a $300,000 annual contribution to the project’s operating costs for next year. This contribution is contingent on the Government and Waipa District Council matching the regional council funding.

“Maungatautari is the ecological jewel in the region’s crown – millions of dollars of public funding and an extraordinary amount of goodwill have been invested in creating this sanctuary for native birds and animals and so council believes it should try to protect that investment.” 

Maungatautari is funded through the Natural Heritage rate which is currently set at $5.78 a year for all households, so the contribution has no effect on the small rates increase proposed. 

In the biosecurity work programme, the council is proposing to spend an additional $259,000 on pest management, bringing the total spend on pest control to $9.15 million next year. 

Councillors emphasised their support for pest control and the eradication of bovine Tb, but resolved to stand firm on their intention to stop funding a regional contribution of $650,000 a year to Tbfree New Zealand in June 2014. The regional contribution to Tbfree New Zealand helps fund possum control to eradicate bovine Tb.

The council decided in May 2012 to continue collecting the funds for a further two years to give Tbfree New Zealand time to find alternative funding mechanisms, rather than using the regional council as a collection agency which has no say over how the money is spent.

In the wake of flooding in the Graham’s Creek area in Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula over Christmas, the council reiterated its support for flood protection works. The proposed programme of works of $600,000 is conditional on Thames-Coromandel District Council agreeing to upgrade the Manaia Road causeway bridge and agreement from the landowner for access where flood improvements will take place. If agreement is reached prior to the annual plan being finalised, then the new rate could be in place for 2014/15 with consents being sought and works being commenced in that financial year.

The 2014/15 Draft Annual Plan is due to be to be adopted on Thursday 13 March. A public submissions period opens on 17 March and closes on Friday 17 April. Hearings are scheduled for May, with adoption of the final plan due on 26 June 2014.