Ratepayers’ money has been used for some bizarre things or in strange ways in recent years.
Remember when Delta Utilities bought properties at Jack’s Point and Luggate, losing millions of dollars for Dunedin’s council?
And what about Kaipara’s council covertly increasing the cost of a wastewater facility to $58 million for about 2000 homeowners in Mangawhai?
It pays, quite literally, to keep an eye on the way councils and their subsidiary companies spend money.
Here in Queenstown, the local council’s books look in good shape.
It made an operating surplus of $30.3m in the last financial year. Its coffers have been boosted by a record $3.9m dividend from Queenstown Airport, which is going gangbusters. There’s a new financial rigour about its reporting.
Yet something smells at City Hall.
The local helicopter rescue trust is starting to suffer financially and, after years of going it alone, it went cap-in-hand to the local councils. Last year, the trust and operating company together made a $37,000 loss on $2m income.
The office-less trust wanted $150,000 over three years to cover a shortfall.
Queenstown’s council generously agreed to a one-off grant of $25,000, which covers about six months of training.
Disappointment at the situation flew into the public domain last week.
A frustrated Lakes District Air Rescue Trust chairman Jules Tapper gave councillors a pointed serve.
For years he and the other trustees didn’t take a bean and now two of them are paid a total of $21,000 a year.
He grumpily points out admin costs have dropped almost $5000 in the last year (to $87,639).
The admin and honorarium costs for the trust and its operating company were 5.73 per cent of its revenue last year - he argues its operating model is one of the most cost-effective in the country.
Tapper tells Mountain Scene the blast came after three different Queenstowners told him the council had a problem with what the trustees were paying themselves.
Indeed, for its $25,000 the council stipulated none of the money be spent on wages or honorariums.
The local body also demanded a councillor be appointed a trustee.
That’s ridiculous. The $25,000, one-off grant is 1.3 per cent of the trust and operating company’s income.
That would be like someone buying a small slice of a stock exchange-listed company - with the intention of selling it in a year - and then demanding a seat on the board.
Sure, there has to be financial accountability and the ratepayers’ money has to be used wisely.
But the chopper trust seems unlikely to get into property development.
Mayor Vanessa van Uden tries to calm the situation, saying the council’s extremely supportive of the trust’s “crucial” work.
Requests for a board place are standard and entirely appropriate for community grants, she says, providing “a direct line of accountability back to the council”.
She adds: “Council is happy to offer an alternate option and waive this condition should the grant be a one-off.”
It seems easy for the council to shell out $40,000 for new adventure race The Pioneer. Or add $562,000 to the fight against wilding pines. Or hand over $195,000 for economic development projects.
Yet when an emergency service - which mainly does medical emergency jobs - needs help the door is all but shut. That stinks. On top of that, the trustees appear to have been treated rudely.
As previously reported, Queenstown property developer John Darby is raising money to get the trust more specialist equipment after a near-death skiing accident a year ago.
Within months he might raise more than the council’s paltry $25,000 grant.
Colliers International’s just donated $5000.
I can’t think of many more worthy causes than the air rescue trust. It’s a pity the council doesn’t share that view.