Pounamu blowout prompts ratepayer pushback on QLDC spending

by Lauren Pattemore - Jun 01, 2023

A $25,000 spend-up on pounamu tiles on a central Queenstown street has caused strong and passionate negative reaction from those footing the bill for the joint local and central government-funded town centre upgrade project.

An article detailing the cost published yesterday by Crux has attracted 136 comments on Facebook, with the large majority from annoyed residents, questioning the need for this spending in the midst of a cost of living crisis. 

"This one takes the cake for utter display of disconnection from society, total lack of heart and total head in the sand. GREED."

"This is bloody ridiculous! We never asked for this! What is wrong with the council? Their stupidity is greatly showing….Line the streets in treasure while those that live here struggle."

Comments have provided metaphors for the Queenstown Lakes District Council's chief executive Mike Theelen's spending habits, saying he was "spending money like a lotto winner", while another says it was similar to a "drunken pirate". 

Another has called it a "waste of precious greenstone"; another asking, "how long until someone comes along and starts prying them out". 

Wānaka businessman and property developer Matt Laming - calling QLDC's financial management into question.

It's even prompted one Wānaka property developer and businessman to reach out to the council himself, penning an email to the chief executive and councillors asking for answers, including Crux in the email. 

Matt Laming has asked if the pounamu had been explicitly budgeted for, who approved the spend, if the return on investment had been calculated, and if there had been any cost comparisons.

Speaking with Crux after pressing send, he says he believes the council seems to be underperforming in their financial management, saying there is "too much waste in the system".

“I guess the issue I've got is I don't have enough evidence that they're making sound financial decisions at an operational level or strategically."

It's the second email he has sent this week; the first, asking questions after a cost blowout on the arterial road had been revealed - a story QLDC originally tried to bury.

Councillor Niki Gladding has replied to the pounamu-related email Mr Laming had sent out yesterday, saying that not everything has a “quantifiable return on investment” and explaining the cultural significance of the project, but that Mr Laming's questions are fair to ask.

Ms Gladding has told Crux she agrees with the position that underpins Mr Laming’s questions, saying over the last several years “we’ve entered some projects with a degree of reckless optimism” and that it needs to stop.

“We need to be looking at our projects, and our operational and capital budgets, with new eyes. The debt headroom and cheap money are gone and there is no Visitor Levy kicking-in in Year 4 of the Ten Year Plan," Ms Gladding says.

Councillor Niki Gladding says the council has 'entered some projects with a degree of reckless optimism'.

She doesn't recall hearing of the pounamu pavers specifically, and doesn't believe councillors were asked to approve such specific details of the project.

The pounamu tiles are part of a $60-million project to upgrade Queenstown's town centre streets that has been joint funded by central government's shovel-ready fund and local ratepayers.  

The only other councillor to reply to Mr Laming's email has been Esther Whitehead, saying councillors had not been involved in the pounamu purchase decision. 

Mr Laming wants to know what the council’s operational budgets are, listing staff numbers, money spent on air travel, and free car parking spaces as examples of this.

Looking at the draft annual plan for 2023, Mr Laming says he has noticed big cuts to capital expenditure, but not the same scrutiny of operational budgets.

“There was zero commentary around operational expenditure and the reality of it is in any organisation capital is what lazy people go after 'cause it's so easy.”

In amongst what Mr Laming says could be “mismanagement” of ratepayer money, he questions how the books are balancing.

He speculates that council is “genuinely broke”.

Calling out to the community, Mr Laming says if anyone feels like joining him in looking into council's decision-making, they're welcome to get in touch with him. 

Main image: One of Rees Street's 50 new pounamu tiles, which cost an average of $506 each.

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