Last week came the inevitable but sad news that many of the staff at the Council event company Vbase will lose their jobs as a result of the earthquake. Due to damage to the Town Hall, Christchurch Convention Centre and AMI Stadium, it was clear to all that Vbase operations will be dramatically scaled back for the next couple of years. More worrying that this however is the liability that the company presents to the City Council, and more importantly, its ratepayers. The council has been forced to take back control of the company, and a $50 million debt burden that will be with ratepayers for a generation.
The Christchurch Town Hall, and the adjacent Convention Centre complex, are both assets to the city that will no doubt return to full use when the city gets back on its feet. AMI Stadium, however, may turn out to be a $60 million white elephant (central government put $15 million into the redevelopment, with Vbase taking on the remaining $45 million of debt, which the council has now inherited).
Even when its turf has been repaired, and the stands and surrounding roads returned to a fit state, it is hard to imagine the stadium paying its way. Before the upgrades to the stands began, the “sold out” sign only went up for high profile games such as All Blacks test matches. Anyone watching recent provincial rugby games will have noted the paucity of spectators in the stands. While the expansion was clearly designed with the Rugby World Cup in mind, once that competition was over we would have been left with over 40,000 seats, requiring the attendance of 1 in every 10 people from the wider Canterbury region to reach capacity.
The stadium upgrade never made financial sense, and the cost to ratepayers shouldn’t be attributed to the misfortune of the earthquake. Before the second quake, on February 18th, Council CEO Tony Marryat announced that the Council would bailout Vbase, and there would be an increase in council rates to pay the $45 million debt that the stadium had run up. The Vbase debacle is a man-made disaster – not a natural one – and the people behind it need to be held accountable for it.
The Press reports this morning that Tony Maryatt and Bob Parker are working with the government for an order in council to push through a rates increase for Christchurch. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that, however, Maryatt is trying to push through the rates increase that was signalled before the quake, one that was written and concieved well before the current event. The big “fuck you” in this rates increase is that much of it is to pay interest costs accrued by the redevelopment of AMI Stadium – which looks unlikely to host any of the games at the upcoming Rugby World Cup. I would like to see Bob Parker try and justify this increase to someone in Breezes Road, who has lived without power, sewerage and water for much of the time since the quake. Try telling them that they need to pay more to the council to pay for a stadium that they probably wont ever get to visit anyway.
When I posted on twitter about the story before, I got a short, sharp response from Councillor Sue Wells:
now is not the time. Constructive. Positive. Leadership. Kia kaha.
You’re right Sue. Now is not the time. Now is not the time to foist a rates increase on a broken city. Now is not the time to try and do it in the least democratic way possible. But I know that’s not what you mean. You think that now is not the time to “play politics”, to criticise council processes. If this was anything to do with the earthquake, then I would agree with you – but it’s not, and you know it. This is politics at it’s most cynical, Parker and Maryatt spotting a gap and trying to squeeze what will be an unpopular rates increase – and one that explicitly breaks Parker’s campaign promise to keep rates increases below 4% – whilst large parts of the electorate have far more important issues to deal with. If Sue Wells would like to explain to me how this is an example of “Constructive. Positive. Leadership” then I am all ears.
The city is a different place now – Bob Parker has been telling us that every day of the last 10. He and Maryatt should be able to see that attempting to push this through without any consideration is a slap in the face to all the ratepayers of Christchurch, especially those with a home that doesn’t have any of the council services their rates are meant to pay for.