Angry Southlanders have called on their district council to stop “bleeding” ratepayer money on an unfinished cycle trail.
It follows a damning report by Deloitte, criticising the council for mismanaging and poorly budgeting the project.
Southland District Councillors were greeted by a packed public gallery this morning for their first full meeting of 2017.
Most of the audience went to protest the budget blowout on the Around The Mountains Cycle Trail, which began as a government-funded project.
Farmer Doug Fraser told the council in no uncertain terms to stop ratepayer funding of the trail.
“This is certainly not a ratepayer responsibility.
“You have a damning report from Deloitte, strongly critical of the governance, risk management and financial management of this project to date.
“We the ratepayers are not prepared to underwrite this project any futher – it’s time to stop the bleeding.”
Mr Fraser said the group was concerned the council might divert money from rural roading and natural emergencies to the cycleway.
Already $9.8 million has been spent on the project, almost $6m over the initial budget.
Brian McCandless warned the council the total cost of the cycle trail, over a 30-year life span, could reach well in excess of $20m.
“The easy option for all of you would be to throw good money after bad in the vain hope of a positive outcome for this project.”
The rate payers aren’t the only ones seeing red over the project.
The council is locked in an Environment Court battle with Fish and Game, over a proposed section of the track that would traverse a world famous trout fishing area on the Oreti River.
Fish and Game won the case, but the council has appealed it to the High Court.
Southland manager Zane Moss said it would be more simple, and cheaper for the council to divert the track to the Makaroa Valley, which runs parallel to the Oreti.
The mayor, Gary Tong, said he still believed in the cycle trail, and had even bought a bike for it, but acknowledged the council needs to discuss whether to continue with the project.
He said while the projected $20m cost by the ratepayers group sounded high, if the council faced further opposition and legal fees, the cost of the project could rise.
The mayor said it was possible the council bit off more than it could chew when it took on the project.
“We’re all putting our hands up and saying this is outside our core services.
“When I was standing for mayor, I made that point a couple of times, the project’s probably a bit big.
“Obviously now I’ve got in the chair I need to tidy it up.
“Somebody said to me recently ‘you’ve been handed a lemon, let’s try and make some lemonade out of it.’
“I thought, ‘yeah well we are, we’re trying to make that lemonade’.”
The council is awaiting the outcome of a Marlborough Environment Court decision to decide whether to continue its appeal against Fish and Game.
A decision on the future of the cycle trail is expected to be made in the next two months.