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Letter: ‘Fiddling the books while Rome burns’

Friday 21 June 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Letters to the Editor, Opinion

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Letter: ‘Fiddling the books while Rome burns’

Dear Editor, Scrutiny of the Cook Islands Government bookwork is normally a job for the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). By withdrawing from deliberations, the Opposition MPs have left the public without a defender.

For the upcoming financial year, water authority To Tatou Vai (TTV) asked the government for $3.9 million to fund operations, but the 24/25 Budget appropriation is only $2.5 million. Cook Islands Investment Corporation (CIIC) will pitch in a further $500,000 by reallocating half of TTV's capital. This habit of ‘borrowing from Peter to pay Paul’ means TTV will be short $1.9 million, and must juggle procurement and implementation.

Going by the desperate rate of installs in Nikao, TTV’s priority is to start billing customers by 1 January 2025. The risk is that the allocated funds will dry-up before all the meters are in. This risk is profiled by the authority as ‘Catastrophic’, and ‘Almost certain’.

Also catastrophic is the concurrent threat of treatment failure. Sand filters are clogged and rusting. Sludge ponds are destabilised, overfull, then overflowing. Still no sludge dumpsite.

Faced with a dual threat to public health and ecosystem function, the administration’s response is to slash budgets.

To provision for the gradual improvement of government water assets, the estimate shows an annual contribution of $803,000 to a Depreciation Contingency Fund, for ‘Rarotonga Water Network’. Back-calculating an initial value of around $12 million, this is a match for the capital cost of replacing the substandard Chinese pipework (‘Pipelayers to be held to highest standards’, 31 Oct 2019). The public infrastructure requires an upgrade (now), but it seems unlikely that TTV will ever inherit this reserve.

To Tatou Vai CEO Tereapii Timoti has declared a change of corporate intent. The authority has not taken ownership of Te Mato Vai - at least, not yet... (Letters, 4 June 2024). However, there is still a need for greater clarity regarding the mandate for the authority to move funds into a reserve. Public water infrastructure cannot be sustained on the replacement cost of office furniture.

Along with the remainder of the Rarotonga water network, the project assets include the 10 new water treatment facilities, with a pooled value of $102 million. Scouring the government financials, there seems to be no corresponding $5-7 million transfer to either a reserve fund; or depreciation expense.

If Te Mato Vai depreciation has indeed been omitted from the government account, then the $3.1 million surplus reported for the 2023/24 financial year should, in truth, be a deficit.

Standing Orders identify the Director of Audit to be the advisor to PAC. To resolve these concerns - and in the absence of a functioning committee - Te Vai Ora Maori call upon Mr Wildin to come to our aid.

Te Vai Ora Maori