Thursday, 18 December 2008

‘Star' accused of ‘whipping up waves'

From the Otago Daily Times Thu, 18 Dec 2008
LETTER TO THE EDITOR - from Richard Walls
[The Star's] front-page report ‘‘Surfers sick of sewage stall'' (December 11, 2008) is strangely detached from reality. The surfboard to which it tenuously hangs relates to ‘‘recent'' comments attributed to me in the Otago Daily Times.

In fact, those comments by me were already several weeks old by the time [reporter] Michelle McCullough contacted me - more than two weeks ago.

The background to them was, of course, the collapse of world financial markets, the ongoing banking crisis and how this might affect the ongoing funding of the DCC's programme of major capital projects, all of which are funded by loan.

My comments were essentially an addendum to the wider overview on the council's position in the same ODT report by DCC finance and corporate general manager Athol Stephens.

At that point, the position of financial markets going forward was not clear. That, as I informed Michelle, remained largely unchanged several weeks later but it had certainly not deteriorated. The same situation applies today, indeed it may be improved somewhat.

The only question posed by your reporter - in what was a very, very brief discussion - was a simple one in relation to the planned installation of secondary treatment at Tahuna. In response, I said (the elected arm of) council had not considered any change to its projected major capital programme, nor did it seem likely to have to.

I added that any reprioritisation of major capital projects would therefore occur when the council enters into its Annual Plan/Community Plan process next year (2009). In plain-speak, its normal budgeting round.

That remains the position.

How your front page story can sidestep those realities and set out to try and ‘‘whip up some waves'' is, to put it kindly, naive.

The reality is that if the market becomes tight and/or interest rates make borrowing too expensive, then council would need to determine what capital projects could be afforded. In short, re-prioritise its planned spending. More detailed but not much different to what every family has to do when considering taking out (say) a mortgage to buy a house.

In the extreme and unlikely event that the loan market totally collapsed or dried up, there would be no funding for any capital projects at all.
Those that would be affected are listed in council's current Annual Plan 2008-09 which is available in printed form or easily looked up on the DCC website.

The secondary treatment plant at Tahuna - budgeted to cost around $70 million - is but one. Like it or not, in such circumstances it cannot be excluded from consideration.

Council simply does not make such decisions on the basis of how one group (in this case, surfers) might be affected but on the benefits to the wider community.

Nor are such decisions made in isolation nor with haste.

I thank Graham Carse for correctly referencing the position I took on the matter of sewage treatment in 1991 during my term as Mayor. He overlooks however, that the detailed and comprehensive upgrade programme then agreed to, planned over 15+ years and costing well over $200 million has largely been implemented.

Effluent discharge into Otago Harbour has ceased with the closure of treatment plants at Sawyers Bay, Burkes and Grassy Point and treatment transferred to Tahuna plant.

Similarly the discharge of effluent from the Mosgiel Plant into the Silverstream/Taieri now goes out through the Green Island Treatment Plant which, amongst other upgrading, has secondary treatment.

The new outfall off the beach at Tahuna replacing the present outfall in the cliff-face at Lawyer's Head is near completion.

It was the use of that outfall and the virtually raw sewage it discharged, until the primary treatment at Tahuna itself was upgraded in the past 20 years or so, that was largely the cause of Tomahawk being closed to bathing etc from the mid-1940s. Hardly recent!

The proposed secondary treatment at Tahuna is the last stage in the upgrade programme referred to. I take some pride in what was agreed to and started on ‘‘my watch'', not because of anything I personally did, but because of what was implemented by the council I was privileged to lead - with wide community support -and which has been carried on by its successors, including the present one.

- Richard Walls Dunedin City Council
Finance and Strategy chair
[Abridged - Ed]



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