Image - Janine BeckerJanine Becker, Chief Financial Officer, says one of Waikato Regional Council’s jobs is making the Waikato feel like a really good place to live.

One of our jobs is to support communities to be self-sustaining, vibrant and connected. Where it’s safe to raise our families, and the community is resilient enough to bounce back from natural disasters.

To prepare for and recover from the worst, we work with communities, organisations and government agencies. It’s all about making sure people have the ability to look after themselves and each other.

Public transport is also one of our responsibilities, helping to connect and engage communities with the kind of services they need, like the hospital and university. Today, we have just over 4 million passengers a year compared with 1.5 million passengers 16 years ago.

Later this year you’ll be able to use buses for free with a disability card. This is a first in New Zealand. It removes barriers for isolated parts of our community. We’re also helping to get people out of cars by supporting the rail, cycling lanes and walking paths.

The proposed Hamilton to Auckland passenger rail service will help to revitalise the landscape between the two cities. I think we all understand the congestion and the issues of getting into Auckland from Hamilton.

But it also opens up more opportunity. You can actually jump on the train and not worry about traffic jams. You can be productive that whole journey. You know you’re going to get to your destination at a particular time.

The council is increasingly moving into the facilities space.

The build of the velodrome five or six years ago was supported by the council. We gave them an upfront contribution of $6 million to build it, but we don’t have an ongoing role in the running of the complex.

Same with the proposed regional theatre.

We have $5 million going into the capital build, but there’s no commitment to its ongoing operation. It’s seed funding, we’re not doing any of this on our own.

It’s the initiation, the support and the partnership with businesses, philanthropic organisations and other councils.

Both venues allow people access to recreational facilities in their own backyard.

It’s an interconnectedness with vibrant communities, regional development and a range of economic benefits. We want to attract people to live in the Waikato. We want people to feel it’s a really good place to live, with ample facilities.

Our long term planning processes are important for key projects. These are the projects where we need to go out and consult with the community. Asking them the question: “Is this the type of investment you want this council to be making? Do we have a role to play in it?”

As long as projects are supported by the community, the Local Government Act gives us a broad mandate to get involved to support the wellbeing of the community.

Twenty years ago, we were very much focused on our core legislative roles. We were doing flood protection. We were managing natural resources in the region. We were doing biosecurity. We were seen as an environmental organisation.

We were Environment Waikato.

Climate change, I believe, is one of the biggest challenges that we have coming at us. The challenge is around the sustainability of the existing infrastructure that’s been built over the years. How does climate change impact on where people currently live? How does it impact on the activities that they’re able to undertake on the land that they own?

We could be looking at quite a different landscape for the region. How will it affect our social, environmental, economic and cultural wellbeing? What happens if flood protection assets become unaffordable for communities to maintain? What happens to that productive land that is protected by those assets?

I don’t know and none of us have the answers to that at the moment! It’s one of the big challenges.

I love the way the younger generation are so engaged and passionate about these things. That’s who we need to be thinking of 20, 30, 50 years from now – it’s them, not us.

A challenge we have is a constrained financial envelope. But I think we are on the right track towards building vibrant communities.

On behalf of local councils, we provide funding to volunteer emergency services.

Another space we work in, from a community perspective, is the range of community groups that we support: river care, coastcare and pest management groups. And there are many more.

We need to be enabling communities to take their own action, creating the spaces they want to live and raise their families in.

From a community perspective we have a part to play in people’s safety on roads, as well as on water. We have Maritime Services, that’s our harbourmasters who look after every aspect of water use, from jet skiing to paddle craft and boating.

Ours is a vast and diverse region. Ours is an extraordinarily complex business. It’s never about a single issue. Understanding the complexity of what we do and what we’re trying to achieve is challenging.

But making the Waikato the best it can be ends up back with the communities. In doing that we acknowledge there are some hard trade-offs that need to be reached. A single issue focus doesn’t work for a business of this nature and complexity. You need to have a more holistic view on the business of council.

I think we absolutely have a responsibility around financial responsibility because rates are a form of tax. It’s about giving communities the maximum value we can for their rates.

What we do needs to be affordable for our communities. Be of value and add value. It’s pretty tough out there for some people; for a lot of our communities it’s tough.

People don’t have a choice when it comes to a lot of our services. But they have to pay for them.