SPECIAL REPORT: Council looks for cost cutting as recession looms

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Council meets to tighten its belt.

Queenstown Lakes District Coun­­­cil is waking up to the idea there’s a recession on as it plans to slash “irresponsible” spending.

Not only will Think Big projects take a hit, staff and overhead costs will be trimmed.

Councillors met yesterday to carve into day-to-day operational budgets, councillor Vanessa van Uden confirms.

She hopes some of QLDC’s Think Big projects – totalling up to an estimated $273 million – will be axed or deferred.

Van Uden claims her council’s been “irresponsible” with spending over the past few years.

“Council’s now taking a long, hard look at [its attitude of] spending money because it’s there. That’s been my biggest concern.

“Hopefully what we’re going to see now is a harder look at what needs to be there before it gets there – and how it’s spent when it gets there.”

As QLDC prepares its draft annual plan for the 2009-10 financial year and updates its long-term community plan, councillors have been talking about what savings can be made.

When the new budget kicks in on July 1, ratepayers can expect to see tough cuts to council capital expenditure – that’s the “first opportunity” QLDC has, Van Uden says.

Some projects earmarked in parks and reserves, for example, have been chopped.

Savings are also expected to be made in areas like staff travel budgets.

QLDC last year paid a reported $20,000 for finance boss Stewart Burns to travel to Boston’s prestigious Harvard University for a conference – and council quango Queenstown Airport later sent chief Steve Sanderson and chairman Mark Taylor to Harvard at a cost of $33,406.

“We need to look at everything and basically say, in this environment, do we continue doing this? Do we continue spending this money?,” Van Uden says.

“It’s nice to have travel and attending conferences. But like many other businesses around the country and around the world – do we need that?”

The economic downturn and how it will impact ratepayers is the driver for the cuts but Van Uden’s been battling for savings for a while.

“All of the councillors are now saying we can’t sustain the level of spending that’s in there.”

She’s urging residents and ratepayers to have their say when the time comes for comment on the annual plan – community input will help keep spending in check.

$273m Think Big list

Town Hall – $140m? Mayor Clive Geddes’s pet project. Plans still being finalised. Councillor Vanessa van Uden: “In my book, it’s not there – not in the form [previously presented].”

Council offices – $28m New civic offices for swelling council and quango staff on Gorge Road carpark site. Van Uden: “We should be doing nothing.”

CBD bypass – $72.5m Ambitious long-term plan to save central Queenstown from traffic gridlock. Van Uden says likely to be deferred.

Gardens depot – $500,000 Plans scaled back significantly but will go ahead.

Shotover sewerage plant – $32m This major project is a must, Van Uden says.

 

New recruitment clamps after manager’s job ad whoopsie

Staff recruitment procedures at Queenstown Lakes District Council have been tightened.

QLDC chief Duncan Field recently told departmental managers that he must personally approve all new positions before they’re advertised.

The move follows an advertisement for a “geographic information systems (GIS) data technician” placed by utilities boss Mark Kunath to “test the market … although the need for the role had been identified”, according to a council report. Field hadn’t approved the new hiring beforehand – and the position wasn’t filled.

This doesn’t happen often, says Field, but: “I am a little uncomfortable with it and I have given some direction to managers generally that I would like to sign off on these things before they’re advertised.

“I simply said, I don’t feel comfortable making an appointment outside the funds that have been given to me for funding, and I would rather discuss that with the council in the next funding round than making the appointment now.”

QLDC has appointed several new senior- and middle-ranked managers in recent years.

Field’s put the GIS data technician position into the draft long-term council community plan – if the plan is approved, the new post will be funded from July 1. 

 

Charging like wounded bulls – 22,000% hike

A local property owner has been battling Queenstown Lakes District Council over a 22,400 per cent price hike.

David Meyer was slapped with the whopping increase when applying to renew a grazing licence on a piece of unformed road next to his property in Kingston.

He’d been paying a peppercorn fee of just $1 per year since October 2006.

But QLDC’s property sub-committee recently decided to introduce a “token charge”, upping the annual cost of the licence to $225, including GST.

That’s a price rise of 22,400 per cent – an inflation rate usually associated with Zimbabwe.

And the imposition of the hike came despite QLDC acknowledging “the benefit” of Meyer’s licence saving the council money, by not having to maintain the road reserve.

A defiant Meyer challenged the decision.

He said when he took on the 2360 square metre piece of land, it was covered in gorse and broom.

Not only had he since cleared that, he’d also fenced the area at his own cost.

Meyer also pointed out he maintains the verge and a gravel road leading to a green waste area and community centre.

He even keeps the grass tidy by borrowing some sheep from a friend, as he doesn’t own any stock himself.

After being presented with details of Meyer’s DIY maintenance plan, QLDC has done a U-turn and restored the licence fee to the original $1 per year.

 

 

Gee thanks, ratepayers

With Christmas gifts like this, Jessica Bruner thinks she’d be better off working for Queenstown Lakes District Council.

Bruner is modelling a 200 gram Icebreaker polo-style long-sleeved top of the type handed out to all QLDC staff at Christmas.

It’s a bit of City Hall largesse which has conservatively cost ratepayers around $8000 – that’s assuming a bulk discount deal of $100 per top for at least 80 QLDC staff.

The QLDC-monogrammed tops even include a zipped iPod pocket.

But the Christmas gift is over the top, sighs councillor Vanessa van Uden.

“I don’t know that it’s a terribly appropriate thing to do, given the current financial situation this country’s in.

“That is ratepayers’ and residents’ money that’s been spent.”

But shouldn’t hardworking staff be rewarded?

“I agree – I think it’s the quantum that’s the issue.

“I’m sure there are an awful lot of hardworking people all round Queenstown who didn’t get expensive Christmas presents.”

Van Uden says the gifts fall within QLDC boss Duncan Field’s delegated authority.