GDC water-testing claims challenged

Hydrologist claims the council is not meeting accepted standards.

Hydrologist claims the council is not meeting accepted standards.

CLAIMS savings had been made by the creation of a new in-house environmental monitoring and hydrology team for Gisborne District Council were disputed yesterday by hydrologist Bob Back, who also said the council was not meeting accepted time standards by sending samples to Auckland.

But the council’s shared sciences manager Lois Easton said substantial savings had been made in laboratory testing and the council was meeting all its legal requirements.

The council’s environmental planning and regulations committee has asked staff to prepare a report responding to Mr Back’s statement.

Mr Back said he managed the council’s technical services division for 10 years and had been managing director of Hydro Technologies Ltd for 17 years. The business had been sold, so he had no vested interest.

He was responding to an activity report before the committee which said expected savings of $94,310 from establishing an in-house monitoring team had been achieved. The report claimed benefits had been made in analysis, data recording and financial savings — but had they? asked Mr Back.

The “hill top” database system was not compatible and a new system would be on the cards. This would be time-consuming and it would not come cheap, he said.

A contractor had to deliver what was specified or they would not be paid. In-house staff could not be held accountable in the same way as their salaries and expenses were regularly paid from ratepayers’ money.

How much did it cost for the Auckland consultant who ultimately chose their preferred Auckland laboratory? he asked.

Errors and omissions

There were obvious errors and omissions in the tender document but when these were pointed out and considerable savings offered, the tender investigation team chose not to even investigate the offer — they chose Auckland, said Mr Back.

His biggest criticism was about the way the new team was handling bacterial samples. The council’s discharge consents and trade waste agreements required APHA standard methods, the world’s most respected water quality examination manual, to be met by consent holders. APHA clearly stated that microbial samples must be held at less than 8 degrees Celsius during a maximum transport time of six hours. By choosing to send samples to Auckland by courier, GDC would never meet this standard.

He had raised this before and the response he always got was that it was OK because other councils in New Zealand were using 10C and 24 hours. These other councils probably never had local laboratories available to them, he said.

“In my book following other councils’ substandard practice is wrong. Two wrongs do not make a right,” he said.

The activity report claimed the services were running under-budget. Which budget, he asked. Mr Back asked the council to get the total budget for environmental monitoring and hydrology service for the period July 1 to December 31, 2015 and to compare it to the same period in 2014.

Given the large number of new staff, with a vacancy still to be filled, and the huge establishment costs it was difficult to believe that savings had been made. Could they appear to be under-budget because this year’s budget was much higher than last year’s?

“If this is the case the ratepayers of Gisborne are entitled to know about it,” he said.

Responding, Ms Easton said things had changed a lot in environmental monitoring since the HTL contract was let in 1999. When it was brought back in-house, Gisborne joined the rest of the country in recognising it was a core function of the council.

“We believe that substantial benefits are being achieved and we are delivering a better level of service for our community within the same budget,” she said.

The council met all the requirements it had to around its water quality testing.

CLAIMS savings had been made by the creation of a new in-house environmental monitoring and hydrology team for Gisborne District Council were disputed yesterday by hydrologist Bob Back, who also said the council was not meeting accepted time standards by sending samples to Auckland.

But the council’s shared sciences manager Lois Easton said substantial savings had been made in laboratory testing and the council was meeting all its legal requirements.

The council’s environmental planning and regulations committee has asked staff to prepare a report responding to Mr Back’s statement.

Mr Back said he managed the council’s technical services division for 10 years and had been managing director of Hydro Technologies Ltd for 17 years. The business had been sold, so he had no vested interest.

He was responding to an activity report before the committee which said expected savings of $94,310 from establishing an in-house monitoring team had been achieved. The report claimed benefits had been made in analysis, data recording and financial savings — but had they? asked Mr Back.

The “hill top” database system was not compatible and a new system would be on the cards. This would be time-consuming and it would not come cheap, he said.

A contractor had to deliver what was specified or they would not be paid. In-house staff could not be held accountable in the same way as their salaries and expenses were regularly paid from ratepayers’ money.

How much did it cost for the Auckland consultant who ultimately chose their preferred Auckland laboratory? he asked.

Errors and omissions

There were obvious errors and omissions in the tender document but when these were pointed out and considerable savings offered, the tender investigation team chose not to even investigate the offer — they chose Auckland, said Mr Back.

His biggest criticism was about the way the new team was handling bacterial samples. The council’s discharge consents and trade waste agreements required APHA standard methods, the world’s most respected water quality examination manual, to be met by consent holders. APHA clearly stated that microbial samples must be held at less than 8 degrees Celsius during a maximum transport time of six hours. By choosing to send samples to Auckland by courier, GDC would never meet this standard.

He had raised this before and the response he always got was that it was OK because other councils in New Zealand were using 10C and 24 hours. These other councils probably never had local laboratories available to them, he said.

“In my book following other councils’ substandard practice is wrong. Two wrongs do not make a right,” he said.

The activity report claimed the services were running under-budget. Which budget, he asked. Mr Back asked the council to get the total budget for environmental monitoring and hydrology service for the period July 1 to December 31, 2015 and to compare it to the same period in 2014.

Given the large number of new staff, with a vacancy still to be filled, and the huge establishment costs it was difficult to believe that savings had been made. Could they appear to be under-budget because this year’s budget was much higher than last year’s?

“If this is the case the ratepayers of Gisborne are entitled to know about it,” he said.

Responding, Ms Easton said things had changed a lot in environmental monitoring since the HTL contract was let in 1999. When it was brought back in-house, Gisborne joined the rest of the country in recognising it was a core function of the council.

“We believe that substantial benefits are being achieved and we are delivering a better level of service for our community within the same budget,” she said.

The council met all the requirements it had to around its water quality testing.

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