Purse strings loosen

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QLDC to write bigger cheques without public scrutiny.

A Queenstown Lakes District Council bureaucrat’s move to stifle consultation on big-ticket expenditure has been cut back by councillors before being approved.

Had finance boss Stewart Burns’s original bid succeeded, “issues, assets or other matters” involving up to
$5 million of budgeted expenditure or $500,000 of unbudgeted expenditure would not be financially “significant” enough to require public consultation.

Existing thresholds are $1m on budgeted items and $100,000 on unbudgeted expenditure.

The move to loosen QLDC purse strings was introduced by Burns at the March 31 council meeting in what the council’s numbers man called a “minor amendment” to the “policy on significance”.

Councillors cut Burns back to $2m of budgeted expenditure and $200,000 on unbudgeted items.

The “significance” test, in Burns’s words, “allows council to identify and recognise issues that the community regards as significant and that it wishes to be consulted on”.

Cost is just one of the criteria.

Most items of QLDC business put to councillors by management are already deemed not significant enough for consultation so Burns has doubled the height of the financial bar.

“Many councils do not include any financial thresholds at all [in their significance policy] because they tend to be too prescriptive and may not necessarily be helpful in determining the significance of a particular issue,” he claimed in his report to councillors.

“Those councils of our size that do include financial thresholds tend to rely on a much higher figure than our policy provides for,” Burns added.

Councillor Vanessa van Uden – who has repeatedly aired concerns over QLDC’s financial affairs – is comfortable with the higher thresholds but warns officials to be scrupulous in applying the significance test accurately.

She cites an error in a committee report last week labelling an unbudgeted item “not significant” when it actually cost more than six times the existing $100,000 limit.

“There is absolutely no doubt – it was an oversight,” says Van Uden. “It was a stuff-up, it was fixed and that should be acknowledged, we all do make mistakes.

“But if we’re talking about a policy for significance, it needs to be at the forefront of council officers’ minds.”

The new financial hikes will now be incorporated in the upcoming council community plan, which was announc­­­ed this week and is open for submissions next week.

Van Uden urges the community to think carefully about the new limits because, unless overturned by submissions, they’ll be enshrined for at least three years from July 1.