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Opotiki Owes $3.5 Million In Unpaid Rates

RATE DEBT: Opotiki mayor Lyn Riesterer said those who can but don't pay their rates "annoy the hell" out of those who do. CHARLOTTEJONES/LDR

Opotiki ratepayers owe $3.5 million in unpaid rates, with some who can pay simply refusing to do so.

Over 80 percent of this debt comes from Maori-owned land, in particular properties up the coast from Te Kaha to the Cape.

Opotiki District Council finance and corporate services group manager Bevan Gray told the risk and assurance committee on Monday that rate arrears and the percentage of properties in debt had remained consistent despite the increase in rates across the years.

However, the council was seeing more rates remissions.

Opotiki mayor Lyn Riesterer said it was most difficult to get her head around seeing some names on the debt list who were financially able to pay their rates.

“To see them get away with not paying their rates when they could be annoys the hell out of those who do,” she said. “We are so dependent as a council on our rates and some people are just taking the mickey.”

In the last quarter, $366,000 in unpaid rates and charges from 2013-14 was written off as local government legislation restricts councils from chasing debt older than six years.

Four percent of this written-off debt applied to general properties and 96 percent to Maori land.

In his report to the council, Mr Gray said staff usually received most of the money owed on general land but the 16 properties for which debt was wiped owed $125,000.

The council does not know who the owners of some of the properties are; some of the properties are worth less than the outstanding amount; and the council could force the sale of some properties through the court.

Mr Gray said there were many reasons people did not pay their rates, including a European man who refused to pay rates on an “unusable” piece of land he owned.

Mr Gray said the rates on this piece of land were $3000 a year but the land was only worth $15,000.

With Maori land, he said multiple ownership made it hard to determine who owed the money.

Even if there was a family living in a homestead on a property and not paying rates, there was often nothing the council could do.

“We should chase those using and living on Maori land,” he said.

However, he did not see any worth in chasing a debt owed on a scrubby hillside that might have 100 or more owners.

Mr Gray said often the value on this land was cultural rather than monetary.

Recently there has been some discussion in local government about whether the rules should be changed for unusable Maori land with multiple owners.

Often the debt owed on a property can prevent owners from making the land productive and profitable and there are those that argue rates should not be charged unless the land is being used.

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