Former Tauranga mayor’s plea to commissioners: Merge councils to pay for infrastructure

Former Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell is calling on the city’s new commissioners to consider merging the Western Bay region’s three councils.

And he says the Bay of Plenty Regional Council needs to “step up and contribute hard cash to pay for infrastructure”.

However, Powell’s plea has been met with resistance from regional leaders who say a merger is not in the best interests of everyone.

Powell, who resigned as mayor in November, said it was time for the newly appointed commissioners of Tauranga City Council (TCC) to actively explore plans to merge the city council with Western Bay of Plenty District Council and Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

Doing so would help pay for the infrastructure needed to address the region’s ballooning population and demand.

Powell said there was “over governance” in the Western Bay sub-region, often resulting in replicated work and “tripping over each other”.

“In my view, effectively uniting the sub-region will only practically come in the form of a unitary authority.”

Powell said he felt the regional council needed to do more for the Western Bay, particularly given its annual dividends from the Port of Tauranga through Quayside Holdings.

Powell said the regional council’s current use of its dividends to subsidise rates for residents was not equitable across the region.

“While they certainly do invest in infrastructure around the Bay of Plenty, I do not believe an equitable pro-rata share is delivered into Tauranga city. It’s time for this to change.

“It’s time for the regional council to step up and contribute hard cash to pay for infrastructure – including roads.”

When asked why he was bringing this up now, Powell said it would not have been a successful conversation to have with last year’s council. Also, now that there were commissioners in charge “there’s a profound opportunity for Tauranga to catch up on the past 15 to 20 years”.

“Had the rate increases been incrementally applied [in Tauranga] over the last 20 years, the city would not be as hamstrung as it is today.”

Powell urged the commissioners, in potentially looking at the unitary plan and agreeing on the Long-Term Plan, to partner with iwi from the outset.

“They will find an enlightened, long-term, inclusive view which will enable them to move forward at pace, taking a big majority of the community with them.

“Just because I’m not mayor anymore, doesn’t mean I don’t care.”

Powell said there was tension between the three councils and he did not know why this was but “that impacts the city”.

Tauranga council commission chairwoman Anne Tolley told the Bay of Plenty Times the commission and the council were “totally focused on bringing together a draft Long-Term Plan to go through the audit process and discuss with our community”.

“No consideration has been given to the ‘pros and cons’ of a unitary authority, so any comment on that would be premature. However, we are undertaking a Representation Review later in the year and that may be an appropriate time for such a discussion.”

Western Bay of Plenty mayor Garry Webber said: “Far be it for me to advise the TCC commissioners on what they should be doing”.

“I have every confidence that they have the expertise and experience to get TCC back into a financially stable position without input from others.”

In his opinion, it would not be fair to look at the Western Bay council for financial assistance to fix the Tauranga council’s issues.

“I have been on record for many years stating that I believe that TCC ratepayers need to invest in their city infrastructure. I know that many TCC councillors over many years have been saying we can’t put our rates up as we are one the highest-rated councils in New Zealand.”

A spreadsheet, supplied by Webber, of a rates comparison between New Zealand’s main centres shows Tauranga to be one of the lower-rated councils in New Zealand, with rates for a $600,000 CV property being $2416 compared to other rates ranging from $3500 to $7491.

Regional council chairman Doug Leeder said he believed it was a little premature to speculate about amalgamation.

There was also a lot of change coming from central government such as the Three Waters reform and proposed replacement of the RMA “which could substantially change the shape and mandate of local government in the Western Bay”.

“There is incredible value and power in thinking regionally. By working together we can all benefit from each other’s strengths and make this region thrive. In my opinion, you cannot separate the Western Bay of Plenty from the rest of the region as the economy and environment is inextricably connected.”

In 2020, the regional council conducted an independent review to ensure it was equitably achieving the best outcomes for Bay communities.

“Over the past 10 years our prudent financial decision making has allowed us to share approximately $148m in dividends for the direct benefit of Western Bay of Plenty ratepayers. In the coming year, every property in the region will save $301 on rates due to offsets from Port of Tauranga dividends.”

In addition to rates dividends, the regional council funded $15 million for the University of Waikato-led tertiary campus in Tauranga’s CBD and $5m toward the development a state-of-the-art marine precinct in Tauranga, he said.

“These are of great benefit to the Bay of Plenty. In contrast, other entities that received shares in the Port of Tauranga when it was established sold them. We are acting in the interests of all individual ratepayers and we should not subsidise decisions that rest with other councils.”

The regional council is currently consulting on its 2021 – 2031 Long Term Plan in which people can review its proposed priorities and funding for the next 10 years. The details are available on the council’s website.

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