It was fascinating watching HBRC councillors debate throwing another $35m subsidy at the dam on Wednesday. Of particular importance was the lack of explanation from staff as to why this decision was not ‘significant’ enough to warrant public consultation.
The interim CEO was asked for an explanation by two different councillors and she fudged the answer both times. Chairman Fenton Wilson even tried to ignore the question at one point. Move on move on, nothing to see here, he seemed to imply.
Other councillors argued that this expense was expected by the public as the environmental cost. As someone who has followed the progress of this project carefully since 2012 I do not recall at any point that the public were informed by HBRC about this cost. It is not in their Long Term Plans, or Annual Plans. Nor was it included in the Tukituki Choices document. I would welcome evidence from HBRC to the contrary, but I doubt that there is any.
According to HBRC’s own Significance and Engagement Policy, “significant” means that the “issue, proposal, decision or other matter is judged by Council to have a high degree of importance. This is typically when the impact is on the regional community, or a large portion of the community or where the financial consequences of a decision are substantial.”
As a ratepayer I wonder why Councillors C Scott, A Dick, D Pipe, F Wilson, and D Hewitt did not feel that risking $35 million of ratepayers money is not a substantial financial decision. Especially given that spending a few million on scientific work for the Heretaunga Aquifer was deemed significant enough that it had to go through an annual plan process.
The Significance and Engagement Policy contains an number of other titbits that are worth noting. When making decision council will “maintain clear and complete records showing how compliance with this Significance and Engagement Policy was achieved.” Where is this record? It is missing from the paper presented on the agenda, so does it even exist?
The policy goes on to say, “When looking at the significance of a matter, issue, decision or proposal, elected members will assess the likely level of community interest, the impact on rates or debt levels, the cost and financial implications of the decision to ratepayers, and the involvement of a strategic asset” (in this case HBRIC). I do not see that any of these criteria were covered in enough detail to give any confidence that robust analysis was done on this deal.
There is very high community interest in anything involving the RWSS. The high turn out at HB Today’s public forum last year indicates this. Whatever the reason for approving this deal, there will still be a significant impact on rates or debt levels. There are significant risk factors involved with this deal that create financial implications. As councillor R Graham so succinctly put it, this deal has to sit as a liability in HBRC’s balance sheet. So why is there no public consultation? Where is the evidence this is a good deal for Hawke’s Bay?
Because let’s face the facts on this deal. We are now committed to buying $35 million dollars of water from RWSS without any evidence that it is actually required. The argument that if the water is not needed then it can be on sold implies that: 1. there will be a market for the water in 10 years; and 2. HBRC will become a commercial business operating as a water trader. I thought HBRIC was the commercial arm of HBRC. Obviously not.
Right from day one many members of the Hawke’s Bay community have been concerned about HBRC being both regulator and promoter of RWSS. There remain far too many conflicts for me to have confidence that these roles have been separated. This decision is but one of them.
So yet again we had a 5-4 spilt vote on a RWSS issue. Yet again a decision has been made that ignores due and proper process. The requirements set out in HBRC’s own Significance and Engagement Policy has been interpreted so loosely that if they were pants they would be down around their ankles. In a long line of appalling decisons around the RWSS, this one takes the cake.