### stuff.co.nz Last updated 05:00 05/03/2014
Empty seats, empty pockets
[...] Chalkie is concerned by a $48 million scheme to build a stadium in Petone for the benefit of the Phoenix A-League football team and its fans. From what we know of the proposal, the Hutt City Council – which means ratepayers – will be asked to contribute $25m towards building a “boutique” 10,000 to 12,000 seat arena at the southern end of the Petone Recreation Ground. [...] The good burghers of the Hutt will be best placed to judge the practicalities of the scheme when further details are available, but the financial side has worrying similarities to the set-up of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Arm’s length charitable trust controlling the budget? Check. Private sector funding promised? Check. Troubled sports franchise as anchor tenant? Check.
[...] In Dunedin, those involved in developing the city’s shiny new covered stadium are far from universally popular after ratepayers ended up with huge debts and an ongoing headache from running the thing. The original idea, itself controversial, was for ratepayers to contribute $129m – split between $91.4m from the city council and $37.5m from the regional council – towards the $188m cost of the stadium, with private sector funding contributing $45.5m. The balance was coming from local trusts and a government grant. In the end, the stadium cost $224m and the ratepayers were hit up for $200m of that. The private sector funding was virtually zero.
You could write a book on the series of failures that left a relatively small number of people – Dunedin has a population of about 126,000 – exposed to such high costs. But even in the short version written by PricewaterhouseCoopers it seems councillors were not well informed about the project and financial controls were inadequate. The controversy still simmers. Local campaigner Bev Butler, a determined and resourceful opponent of the stadium scheme, continues to unearth aspects of the process that do not reflect well on its management. One of the latest involves the relationship between Carisbrook Stadium Charitable Trust, which runs the project, and the council.
The problem in this instance is the lack of transparency around public spending, even when there was obviously concern at the outset to keep a firm grip on it. More than that, Dunedin got in over its head and allowed itself to be the schmuck landed with everyone’s bill at the end.
Money from the council was supposed to be transferred to the trust only to pay for third-party invoices billed to the trust. An exception to this rule provided for the trust’s administration costs to be covered by a general monthly payment from the council. These “trust costs” invoices were for between $40,000 and $90,000 a month, running from July 2007 to January 2010. According to Butler’s information, which tallies with the council schedule, the payments totalled $2.2m over the period. An Official Information Act response from the council to Butler said the money was paid “to cover staff and administration costs” of the trust “to facilitate ease of administration”.
Chalkie can see that it would be easier to pay for the trust’s incidentals in this way. However, it opened a big hole in accountability for spending because the staff and administration costs detailed in the trust’s annual reports for the period total $1,068,796, more than $1m less than the sums invoiced. It is not clear from the accounts how the other $1.1m was spent because no combination of other costs – marketing, PR, fundraising or project administration – seems to come close to the right figure. Chairman of trustees Malcolm Farry told Chalkie he could provide documents to clarify the details last week, but unfortunately they were not yet available as we went to press.
There are several lessons for the Hutt City Council, including to beware of using a charitable trust as the development vehicle, to ensure private sector money is paid up front with a buffer for contingencies, and to ensure there is no ambiguity about costs.
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● Chalkie is written by Fairfax business bureau’s Tim Hunter.
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