What makes Gary Simpson tick?
Porirua City Council chief executive Gary Simpson has just completed four years in the job. He talks to Kris Dando about the supercity discussions, rates and how he spends his downtime.
After 20 years at Porirua City Council, then three years at Kapiti Coast District Council, why did you return to Porirua in 2010?
I enjoyed my time in Kapiti, but my links with Porirua are very strong. It [the chief executive role in Porirua] was something I had wanted for a long time and I really thought I had missed the opportunity. I left not expecting to ever be back, but Roger [Blakeley] left after 10 years and I put my name forward.
What are the differences between Porirua and Kapiti, from a council perspective?
Porirua is a big city with its suburbs, while Kapiti is more a group of individual communities, with community boards. The boards are like councils in their own right.
How has your role changed, from general manager the first time to chief executive now?
In my first 20 years here, it was a time of great investment in Porirua. I was at the centre of things like the building of the Aquatic Centre, Porirua Park and the early days of Te Rauparaha Arena. Now, it’s about limiting cost and improving efficiency, getting more out of what you’ve got. The landscape has certainly changed.
Do the decisions you have to make keep you awake at night?
If they did, you’d have to be asking serious questions of yourself. You can do this job or you can’t. I’ve been lucky – we have some great staff here who work hard for this community.
Do you see the frontline staff much?
When I started as chief executive, I expected to get out there regularly. But I don’t do it as often as I’d like. My calendar is pretty constrained.
What are your biggest likes and dislikes about the role?
I just really enjoy this job. I like seeing the growth of people and of the city. It can be extremely rewarding to watch people get things done. The job is not without its challenges and there are things you can’t control. I would like to fix every problem I come across, but you know that can’t always happen — I sometimes get disappointed with the vitriol that gets directed towards the council, but it rarely comes my way.
You must grind your teeth anytime someone mentions Porirua’s high rates?
The single biggest fact about rates is that what they cost in Porirua is pretty fair compared to local bodies around the country. We have significantly fewer rateable properties — Kapiti has 51,000 people and 25,000 rateable properties, and Porirua has a population of 53,000 but only 17,000 rateable properties. Seventy-four per cent of our operating budget comes from rates, compared with the national average of 62 per cent and Auckland’s is in the mid-40s because they have other revenue sources. We’re spending 85 per cent of our capital budget on infrastructure and it doesn’t leave a lot for the ‘‘nice to have’’ stuff.
What are the major infrastructure costs coming up?
The sewage treatment plant needs a major expansion and we want to spend more on our roading network. A huge challenge will be the coming [10-year] longterm plan. We need to set some meaningful things in place and make some very tough decisions.
Does the super- city talk enter your thoughts much?
Not right now, but this council made it clear of our support for the regional council’s stance on having one city for the region. At the end of October the Local Government Commission will make its recommendation and that will start discussions again. Porirua joining Capacity, now Wellington Water, was a major achievement. I don’t think the public fully understand the magnitude of it yet. We’re having these [supercity] discussions across the CEOs in the region and it’s an incredibly healthy forum to do it in.
How is working with Nick Leggett?
It’s been fine since the start. We work closely together. There are times when we don’t agree, but for the most part we have a good relationship. The good thing about Nick is that he recognises what I and the council staff are here to do. I’m not trying to be mayor and he doesn’t want to be chief executive.
You must have seen some real characters come and go on this council?
I’ve always had respect for the elected members who put up their hands, because it’s a pretty thankless task. Some have been brilliant and some not so great, but I’ve never seen any who have been indifferent.
You still live in Pukerua Bay? What do you do in your downtime?
Yes, still living there. It’s a great spot to unwind. I’m a member at Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club, have been for some time. My handicap is maybe 9, sliding into 10, and I try to get out once a week, with no practice. I’ve always enjoyed gardening. It’s something that relaxes me. I love to travel. I read mostly fiction — Tim Winton is a favourite, along with James Lee Burke. I’ve read all of Henning Mankell’s books. I read plenty of non-fiction at work.
Gary Simpson: ‘‘I’m not trying to be mayor and he [Nick Leggett] doesn’t want to be chief executive.’’