Scrutiny time

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It wasn’t exactly a great Christ­mas present for the staff of Queens­town Lakes District Council and its associated entities. 

Just five days before Christ­mas Day, QLDC issued a statement confirming a wide-ranging review of the council, its regulatory arm Lakes Envir­onmental and the corporate and support services of sport and recreation body Lakes Leisure. 

In plain language, the jobs of 166 council staff, 68 Lakes Environmental staff and less than 10 Lakes Leisure staff were ripe for scrutiny. 

Council chief executive Adam Feeley makes no apology for the pre-Christmas timing. 

“The council indicated it wanted to review operations over two years ago, and on my appointment as chief executive, I advised staff that a review would begin early in 2013 – so there was no surprise in the announcement,” Feeley says. 

Before the review could go ahead, council had to vote for it at its final meeting of last year. 

“So we wanted to inform staff as soon as this decision was made.” 

Feeley’s right to say it was no surprise. A major plank of local mayor Vanessa van Uden’s election campaign was to trim the fat at debt-burdened QLDC. 

Feeley, who prefaced his October 2012 arrival at council by saying he’s no “steady-state kind of person”, has recently been making noises about the expense of running the council. 

At a Destination Queenstown meeting last month, guest speaker Feeley said the thing that had stuck out to him so far in his new job was the cost of running local government. “It’s huge. I know the mayor Vanessa is very committed to managing costs in this district and with good reason,” he said then. 

Just last month the Govern­ment’s financial watchdog, the Auditor-General, warned the council it still faces financial risk, despite what it dubbed “creditable cost-cutting” under Van Uden’s mayoralty. 

In an Auditor-General report on council 10-year plans, it credits this council with financial prudence for chopping $70 million in expenditure but warned fiscal risk remained – especially with potential infrastructure failure or major population growth. The council’s $128m debt is 16 per cent higher per head of population than any other in New Zealand. It’s also projected to climb to $171m by 2022 – despite the new cost-cutting regime. 

The council staff and activities review doesn’t just come as QLDC looks to cut costs – it’s also been foreshadowed by major changes to local government law aimed at making councils more efficient in delivery of services to business and households. 

Asked how crucial this review is to ensure council and its entities can meet the challenges posed by the predicted explosive growth in the district, Feeley says: “It’s absolutely fundamental that council takes stock of what is a very dynamic environment – both in terms of economic and legislative change. If we don’t assess these challenges and make the necessary changes to the organisation, we’ll be failing the com­munity. 

“This means we can’t simply look at what we’re doing now, but also what we will be doing and how we will be doing it, in 10 or 20 years’ time.” 

Feeley won’t be drawn on any estimate of job losses: “If there are more resources needed to carry out a function we’ll add those resources. Con­versely, if we have too many resources applied to other activities, we’ll reduce them accordingly. It’s fair to say change is inevitable, but the scale or nat­­ure of it has still to be determined.” 

A major plank of the review focuses on the operating structure and models of Lakes Leisure and Lakes Environ­mental. For both, the review will analyse whether there are opportunities to better integrate back-office activities to achieve cost-efficient outcomes. 

Of his hopes for the review outcome, Feeley says: “I think any organisational review should have the same goals – internally, a happier and more purposeful workplace, and externally, satisfaction from its stakeholders that it is doing a better job.” 

It’s expected to take about two months for a report and recommendations to emerge from the review.