Queenstown’s roading rip-off

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Queenstown ratepayers are being diddled out of millions – because the Government’s NZ Transport Agency reckons we’re too rich. 

NZTA roading subsidies reveal Queenstown’s council will be shortchanged by between $1.4 million to $3.5m this financial year, compared with subsidies granted to neighbouring councils. 

Queenstown’s NZTA subsidy is 44 per cent while councils in Central Otago, Southland, Gore, Dunedin, Invercargill and Balclutha all rake in between 50 to 59 per cent from the national roading body. 

Fifty per cent is “the national overall average [subsidy]”, NZTA official papers declare. 

Queenstown mayor Vanessa van Uden (below), who plans to tackle the disparity, says: “It’s not tiny money we’re talking here.” 

Van Uden’s council will spend $23.6m on local roads this fiscal year so NZTA’s 44 per cent subsidy will be $10.4m. 

If the Wakatipu subsidy was 50 per cent like Central Otago’s, the resort would receive $11.8m from NZTA – or $13.9m if our subsidy matched Invercargill’s 59 per cent. 

The underfunding effectively taxes Queenstown ratepayers – whose rates are already “higher than rates paid elsewhere”, the Office of the Auditor-General has warned. 

The subsidy comparisons surprised her council, Van Uden admits: “This level of disparity in the [NZTA] funding assistance was news to a fair few of us. 

“We very clearly said [to officials] we need to be in there making sure we get some equity.”
NZTA documents reveal roading subsidies are largely determined by a council’s “ability to pay” – based on a district’s land values. 

This “indicates the financial resource available to the [local council] through its ability to rate [property owners]”, NZTA states. 

The national road-funding formula, dreamed up in 1959 and last changed significantly in 1979, is under review – and an overhaul can’t come soon enough for Van Uden. 

“We’re not just sitting on our hands and taking it. We’ll be putting up a very strong case.” 

While the method of calculation and the whole NZTA system are up for discussion, Van Uden has doubts about a system basing subsidies on local property values. 

“That’s basically the same as decile ratings for high schools and I’m very clear that doesn’t represent equity for our community,” the mayor says. 

Van Uden’s referring to Wakatipu schools being poorly funded by the Ministry of Education because local parents are regarded as well-heeled. Perhaps for the same reason, the Southern District Health Board gives Lakes District Hospital in Frankton less than half the per-capita funding granted to other Otago-Southland satellite hospitals. 

“We’re not as rich as those methods of calculation may lead people to believe,” Van Uden says. 

NZTA already ranks low in Queenstown’s popularity stakes, with a desperately-needed new bridge at Frankton’s Kawarau Falls stalled. 

Last weekend, the Government roading body rubbed salt into local wounds by trumpeting the opening of not one but two new bridges at the tiny North Otago settlement of Kurow – cost $20m.