Mayoral candidates get down to business

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Angela O’Leary would align rates to the cost of living in her first term, Louise Hutt wants Hamilton to be the coolest city in the country, Paula Southgate wants collaboration and Michael West thinks Hamilton has fallen to a nationwide epidemic of prioritising fancy projects over essential growth projects.

Meanwhile, incumbent mayor Andrew King says the council has opened up Peacocke after talking to two governments of different political stripes. He also got in an early broadside in his opening address at a mayoral candidates forum in September: “You’ve got to bring enough money to look after what you’ve got, not make a name for yourself by holding rates down, and not looking after what you’ve got.”

Mayoral candidates made their pitches to the business-focused forum, which was organised by the Employers and Manufacturers Association and held at Wintec’s Gallagher Hub.

In what proved to be a largely polite affair, the candidates then gave prepared answers to questions from MC Kelvyn Eglinton before taking questions from the floor.

Water management
With the Waikato River at full allocation for water withdrawal, the prospect of water meters to help manage rising water demand – a political hot potato in previous elections – was largely dismissed by the incumbent councillors.

Newcomers Hutt and West wouldn’t rule them out, although Hutt said any discussion would have to include provision for people who are struggling. West, meanwhile, said anyone who claims to be interested in water conservation, but who rejects water meters, isn’t fully committed.

More seasoned campaigners King and O’Leary, however, both dismissed water metering.

O’Leary described water as “the tsunami that is literally coming towards us”, while King said, “I don’t want my old people not having a bath or washing in a bucket, because they want to save water because they paying for it”.

Southgate sidestepped the meter question, and, like others, said shared water services needed to come back on the table while also putting in a plug for grey water technologies.

Perhaps Hutt had the best line, albeit a backward looking one: “The river is at capacity because we give lots of it to Auckland. And they only get it because we didn’t have our act together on what we will need in the future, so they got in first. Water availability was a strategic advantage for Hamilton and for Waikato, and we’ve let it slip away.”

Debt and growth
Candidates were asked how the council would meet growth curves given the city’s debt levels.

King and Southgate were keen on special purpose vehicles to take development debt off the council’s books. O’Leary also supported that, saying debt was too high and the principle of growth paying for growth wasn’t working, while she also got in a jab about addressing debt by stopping “ad hoc pet projects, like spending $7 million on buildings that nobody actually wanted”. West thought the Waikato River Plan and Hamilton Gardens, which he said ratepayers have spent millions on, could be put on hold. And Hutt, by some distance the youngest of the candidates, played to one of her themes: “A problem I’ve had when I’ve been hiring at work, and especially with young talent, is that people simply don’t want to live in Hamilton. And especially when you’re talking to young people, it’s not cool. It’s not just about getting people to come here, because that’s already happening. It’s also about getting people to stay and enjoy being here.”

Shared services
All candidates had their own version of regional collaboration to help fund infrastructure and service provision to meet growth.

Southgate was interested in council-controlled organisations and public-private partnerships. O’Leary proposed a One Waikato plan, while rejecting a Hamilton super city. King said government would bring in cross-boundary authorities that would take choice away from councils, and also said Hamilton was undertaking a $2 billion infrastructure programme within its debt capacities. West wanted to see councils drop parochialism and Hutt saw potential in collaborating with leading organisations in best practice.

Eastern corridor
Given the introduction of the Hamilton to Auckland corridor plan, what would candidates do to foster an eastern corridor to Tauranga?

Southgate said the Golden Triangle was still relevant, and other candidates also made positive noises – except King, who broke ranks in what may have been the most memorable moment of the evening. The road was good as far as Piarere, he said, the government was fully focused on opening up the H2A corridor, the Hamilton to Tauranga road was NZTA’s responsibility, the city couldn’t afford to be opening on every front. “So the answer to the question of what would I do to promote the corridor between Hamilton and Tauranga is: nothing.”

Claudelands Event Centre
In answer to the first question from the floor, O’Leary and West would be open to discussing a sale of Claudelands Event Centre if a willing buyer could be found, while King and Southgate said they wouldn’t sell.

Development contributions
O’Leary said two development contributions reviews in the past three years had created uncertainty, and that she had been told developers were pulling back or leaving town. Southgate said the council needed to be sure contributions weren’t priced at a level that became a disincentive for business to invest. West said private developers had told him they could meet the cost of stormwater infrastructure more cheaply than council and said they would as long as they didn’t have to pay the development contribution. Hutt thought developer contributions should be used in such a way as to encourage young people to live in the central city. It was left to King to endorse the current regime: “Someone’s got to pay, so does the developer pay, and pay his way, or does the ratepayer pay? It’s as simple as that. We’re only allowed to take in DCs what the true costs are for their share of infrastructure that we’re providing.”

A billion bucks
What would the candidates do if an investor appeared in  town and gave them $1 billion to spend, on the basis that it wasn’t to be used to repay debt?

Southgate was first to answer and made an impassioned case for the development of the river: “For the central city, for the river revitalisation, for a hotel, for a pedestrian footbridge, for opening up the back of the museum, for having a functioning jetty and a fantastic connection with the new theatre. It’s got to be something that benefits all Hamiltonians and really changes the city for the better. And I do believe in the river plan.”

O’Leary thought the river spend would need only half the amount, and she would spend the other half on a rates holiday for ratepayers for five years.

King pointed out, given the total rates take, that the rates holiday would last just two and a half years. He would invest for the long-term future and do what London did pre-war and put in a underground system.

Hutt would spend it on the waste water plant, which she said currently has high carbon emissions; she would try to make it self-sustaining in terms of electricity.

But this question was a poser for West, who likened it to a Lotto win. “We’ve seen the result of what happens in Lotto wins when the money is too much to refuse, the temptation is too great to refuse.”

That wasn’t enough for Eglinton, who pushed him: “What would you do with it?”

West: “One of the things you’ll find about me is that I’m a deep thinker, so to give a serious answer on that one I’d need a lot more time to consider.”

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