Mayor reveals big refund

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Queenstown mayor Vanessa van Uden has leaned on officials to lift the veil on a $400,000 claw-back from a council contractor. 

Van Uden reveals heavy-duty horse-trading with United Water resulted in the big refund – which council staff have been keeping under wraps. 

United repaid the $400,000 last February after council boss Debra Lawson conducted negotiations, which resulted in a new deal for the contractor to continue running most district waterworks. 

The $400,000 is equivalent to $20.50 per rateable property. 

Even before becoming mayor, Van Uden confesses to misgivings over the original 2008 deal with United. 

“Once we started getting the first bills, I started expressing concern about it,” she says, admitting she made little headway with council chiefs at the time. 

Van Uden says the first United contract included a “convoluted” arrangement where the council paid more if actual costs exceeded budget and United made refunds if its costs were less. 

However, she claims there was far more pain than gain for the council because the deal gave United “too much leeway”. 

Lawson began reviewing United’s contract soon after her appointment in 2010. 

“Debra deserves credit for listening to those concerns and taking action,” Van Uden says. 

Lawson tells Mountain Scene the original multi-million dollar contract with United “was heading for quite substantial over-expenditure”. 

“I just worked it through with hard-nosed negotiation. The timing was good because we were coming up to a renewal,” she says. 

United signed a new contract for one year from last July, with prospective renewals after that. 

Lawson says the new contract is “more traditional” – no pluses or minuses – and gives “cost certainty”. 

The council saves about $94,000 monthly – $1 million-plus annually – on the new deal, she says. 

Mountain Scene repeatedly asked Lawson whether the original contract problems had any bearing on last April’s departure of council infrastructure boss Mark Kunath but Lawson would only say: “Mark resigned.” 

Until Mountain Scene recently approached Van Uden, council officials were stubbornly resisting an Official Information request filed last March over the United refund. 

“Council’s assessment is that the public interest in this matter does not outweigh the commercial interest,” an official wrote last October. 

Van Uden sees things differently, especially now a new deal has been done with United. 

“This is a situation where council has responded to a concern, there’s been a positive outcome. 

“The learnings have been put in place. 

“I have no problem with that being available to the public,” she adds. 

Lawson praises United: “They worked with the council really well and we [decided] to renew the contract.” 

The refund couldn’t be publicised earlier, Lawson maintains, otherwise “a really tricky negotiation and a really difficult renewal” might have been jeopardised. 

Van Uden, who won the mayoralty in 2010 on a value-for-money ticket, admits United had “commercial and reputational sensitivity” at stake over the negotiations. 

United – which has recently become part of France-based global conglomerate Veolia Water – chose not to comment.