The West Coast Regional Council rates mess has reared its head again with the council admitting an “administration error” caused some ratepayers to be charged twice through direct debit.
Council’s Risk and Audit Committee chair Frank Dooley said front line staff have been wearing the outcome of a poor system, which reflected years of under investment because of a fear of “putting the rates up”.
The latest blunder comes after council overcharged some West Coast ratepayers last year, forcing officials to reissue invoices in December.
Invoices for 2023-24, from December 12, should show exactly what people owed for their second installment, Dooley said.
Ratepayers have been contacting Local Democracy Reporting and posting to social media after their rates direct debits were double dipped – and sometimes for variable amounts.
“Incomprehensible” invoices, some with charges dated as 2022-23 instead of 2023-24, have also been pointed out.
Council chief executive Darryl Lew said the direct debit mistake reflected ongoing issues with council’s rates accounting system.
“We acknowledge the administration error that resulted in duplicate payments, those individuals affected have been reimbursed within 24 hours,” he said.
Council had also responded “to a small number” of ratepayers concerned at their accounts, and having “difficulty understanding the invoices”.
“We appreciate this is a complex matter for many ratepayers and rates direct debits are calculated on an individual basis, taking into consideration many factors including rating district levies and the ratepayer’s current account balances.”
Lew said the direct debits have been recalculated to reflect the difference between the previous rates payments and the new calculation for the rating period.
“Those affected ratepayers will be notified in due course,” he said.
In the first problem to arise, as the 2023-24 invoices arrived, ratepayers in special rating districts like Greymouth and at Hari Hari were shocked to find huge rates increases of up to 300%.
The final due date was January 20, after two previous payment extensions.
However, ratepayers were encouraged late last year to still pay their first incorrect installment, with the assurance this would be balanced out with the second installment.
Lew was also asked why the refreshed 2023-24 rates invoices sent out on December 12 still had 2022-23 quoted at the bottom.
Dooley, an accountant, said the new invoices sent out should have said 2023-24.
The invoice system problem reflected wider issues affecting council administration due to under investment, he said.
Dooley said they are waiting a final report from Price Waterhouse Cooper, commissioned by council late last year, to investigate the rates system.
“We need to improve that system but without seeing the PWC report, I can’t make further comment.”
Council rates staff have been “inundated” over the issue.
“There was a system break down and that shouldn’t have been the case. Councils need to make sure the systems are right.
“Why haven’t we got an annual report? Exactly the same problem: we haven’t invested in systems and we haven’t invested in people,” he said.
“The lack of investment over a number of years is coming back to bite us and we have got to change that.”
By Brendon McMahon, Local Democracy Reporter
Local Democracy Reporting is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air