It was the day before the big vote.
In July last year, Christchurch mayoral frontrunners Phil Mauger and David Meates crammed into a Stuff meeting room for a debate before a crucial meeting at which councillors would decide whether to spend an extra $150 million on the city’s stadium, Te Kaha.
Pressure was on the mayoral candidates to state their positions.
The previous day, it was announced a fixed-price construction contract, of $683m, had been negotiated with BESIX Watpac. The stadium board chair Barry Bragg said there was now a “very, very low” chance ratepayers would have to spend more than the aforementioned cost blowout.
In the Stuff debate, Mauger pointed to public submissions from more than 30,000 people, 77 percent of whom wanted the council to “crack on with” a 30,000-seat stadium, and, he said, “I think we should”.
(The stadium was already $50 million dearer after an August 2021 vote, when councillors caved to public pressure and added 5000 seats to the design.)
How comfortable were the mayoral hopefuls about the extra debt required to fund the stadium?
Meates, the former boss of the district health board, expressed concerns about the council’s tight finances.
The city had other uncertainties, he said, such as reforms of Three Waters and local government, and it needed to be sure it had enough financial headroom to respond to an event, such as a natural disaster.
Addressing the headroom situation, Mauger said the council’s financial boffins always advised to keep $400m up its sleeve in case of a disaster.
If the council did take on the stadium budget blowout, how comfortable was he with the forecast debt?
“I want to go down the budget line-by-line, and look at what we can take out or prioritise or stop.”
A classic example of potential savings, he said, was inner-city road works, as on Gloucester St, which added up to $15m. Mauger’s verdict: it wasn’t necessary right now.
(In truth, Gloucester St’s $1.5m upgrade was eligible for 90 percent funding from Waka Kotahi. Central Government was also going to pay half of a $22m revamp of central city streets around the new stadium, with $11m more for underground services. Mauger wasn’t happy about the latter project pre-election but ended up backing it last year.)
“There’s lots of things like that in there that we can just tweak out and pull out and work towards getting the money for it,” Mauger told Stuff.
He reaffirmed of the stadium: “I don’t want it to be a burden on ratepayers.”
Asked how he would fund the stadium if elected mayor, Mauger said until the following day’s vote there won’t have been certainty about its construction.
“If you can go out to our neighbours – Waimakariri and Selwyn – and say we are finally on the road, you’ve got a different presentation,” he said.
“If we say yes, we’ll have some certainty to go to them and ask them for a contribution.”
They did say yes, of course. The day after the debate, city councillors – with three notable exceptions – voted to pay the additional $150m.
And Mauger was elected mayor in October last year.
However, dark clouds have gathered over his council, and Mauger’s language has hardened.
In August, Newsroom broke the news he was willing to backtrack on an election promise not to sell council-owned assets.
And last month, he told The Press the council was considering cuts to libraries and swimming pools to avoid an 18 percent rates hike. (His description of smaller libraries as a “building with some books in” struck a nerve with the public.)
Gone was the relaxed language from last year of things to “tweak out and pull out”. The council, with about $2 billion of debt, was up “shit creek” financially, he said last month.
The proposed cuts were news to councillors, who were yet to be briefed. Some of them accused Mauger of making dramatic claims to pave the way for asset sales, and not revealing that some savings to the projected rates increase – of about 4 or 5 percentage points – had already been made.
Te Kaha stadium and debt interest costs accounted for $400m, or 26 percent, of the annual spend, it was reported, compared with 4 percent for libraries.
So much for the stadium not being a burden on ratepayers.
“If there was to be a formal approach, they needed to be thinking about demonstrating economic benefit to the Ashburton District from events at the stadium.” – Ashburton District Council chief executive Hamish Riach
Which brings us back to those funding discussions with other Canterbury councils.
Now, more than a year into his mayoralty, how are talks progressing?
We asked Mauger for an update but, instead, the council provided comments from chief financial officer Leah Scales.
On October 20, she said the council had initial discussions with chief executives of Hurunui District Council on August 14, Ashburton District Council on August 18, Waimakariri District Council on September 4 and Selwyn District Council planned for October 31.
“Caroline Harvie-Teare, chief executive of Venues Ōtautahi, and Matthew Mark, programme manager for water reform, attended these meetings with me, as they have both engaged with these councils previously.
“Once we have completed these meetings we will be providing our suggested approach to the council.
“Regardless of what approach is suggested we anticipate meeting with the chief executive and mayors/councillors from other councils in the region to provide them with an update on the progress of this regional facility.”
Newsroom approached the chief executives of each of those councils, and their comments reveal tepid interest, and continued trepidation about a contribution.
“Selwyn has not received a request for funding towards Te Kaha,” says council boss Sharon Mason.
“As a new CEO, it was great to meet different staffing groups to discuss building stronger relationships.”
Jeff Millward, of Waimakariri District Council, stressed the September 4 online meeting was informal and Te Kaha was not anticipated or funded in its long-term plan.
Discussions were about “at a high-level what a potential contribution from neighbouring districts could look like”.
“Any potential contribution from Waimakariri District would need to be subject to full community consultation before any decision was made.”
Hurunui chief executive Hamish Dobbie says Christchurch City Council provided an update on Te Kaha’s progress, followed by a discussion of ongoing operational costs. Dobbie says his council doesn’t have a view on the project.
“No proposal was put forward regarding any funding request.”
Ashburton District Council’s boss Hamish Riach is the former chief executive of the Crusaders Super Rugby team. He says talks with Scales and her colleagues focused on progress with Te Kaha.
“There was reference to the potential for a Canterbury-wide approach to operating costs, but nothing specific, and no direct request for the Ashburton District Council to contribute to the operating costs.
“I suggested to the city council reps that if there was to be a formal approach, they needed to be thinking about demonstrating economic benefit to the Ashburton District from events at the stadium – that is, what direct benefit would flow to the Ashburton community that would potentially justify a direct contribution.
“I (and as far as I’m aware neither has anyone else from this council) have not heard anything further on this matter since that discussion.”
Before last year’s local body elections, the city council discussed Te Kaha with Jenny Hughey, the then chair of ECan, Canterbury’s regional council.
Nothing came of it, current chair Peter Scott tells Newsroom.
Giles Southwell, ECan’s director of corporate and public transport services, says: “There has been no further discussion with Environment Canterbury around Te Kaha funding since representatives from Christchurch City Council, Venues Ōtautahi and Environment Canterbury met in June 2022.”
And what of Mauger?
The council tells us: “The mayor has had informal conversations with other Canterbury mayors.”
We put to the mayor that if costs, debt, and ensuring the stadium is not a burden on ratepayers were such a high priority, as stated during last year’s election campaign, why haven’t he and the council tried harder to secure funding from other councils?
The council responds: “The mayor is focused on all ways to reduce the burden on ratepayers. Staff are about to complete their meetings with other councils and he looks forward to hearing how these have gone, so the next steps can begin.”
‘Fictional’ story about poor finances
Where does this leave the Christchurch City Council?
We asked Sara Templeton, Dr Melanie Coker, and Celeste Donovan – the councillors who, in July last year, voted against spending an extra $150m on the stadium.
(Information circulated before the vote said that equated to $144 a year for the average residential property, a sum that would reduce over 30 years.)
At the vote, Templeton expressed concerns the additional funding would lead to cuts in services, community facilities or essential projects to prepare for climate change.
She tells Newsroom: “At the time I was accused of scaremongering, but with libraries, pools, cycleways and water infrastructure all currently being discussed for cuts, I’m concerned that we will not be making the right decisions for the future of our city and our residents.”
It’s always been clear neighbouring councils wouldn’t help with the capital cost, Templeton says, but would be approached to contribute to operational costs.
“Any approaches to other councils and their residents for funding Te Kaha should also come with offers of involvement in the process around the operations – after all, why would their ratepayers fund something that they have no say over?”
Donovan says Christchurch should have involved the other councils early in the design process so they could have meaningful input.
“Those advocates for the additional costs said at the time the Christchurch City Council must ‘show courage’ by committing to the extra funding, and suggested that any funding rates hole would be found from savings elsewhere without too much evidence as to specifics.
“Bottom line is though, while I am sure Te Kaha will be an impressive facility, the focus now for me is to minimise the effects on core services like libraries, pools, key projects in the eastern suburbs, and not selling our assets.”
Coker says though the approach to neighbouring councils has been slow, her biggest concern is the council’s ballooning debt, taken on to finish Te Kaha.
“This expenditure is one reason adding to the fictional story that council is in a financially precarious situation. This story is being used to fuel a city assets fire sale, and deep cuts to council services.”
By April 2026, when Christchurch’s stadium is scheduled to open, the sacrifices made by citizens will be clear. Will they feel it has been worth it?