Officials' Drinks - It's Your Shout

Michelle Robinson, Marika Hill & Kirsty Johnston

Taxpayers are coughing up thousands of dollars to welcome public servants into the government's embrace - then spending even more on boozy farewells when they leave.

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act show that almost half a million dollars of public money went on morning tea shouts, powhiri and farewell parties over the past three years. The amount of $453,450 is a conservative estimate as many government-funded organisations - including the police - refused to answer questions, preferring to keep their spending secret.

Other organisations could provide only the figures for the most recent event held, due to a lack of detailed accounting reports into workplace shouts and cultural occasions.

This was despite State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie saying transparency was crucial to maintaining a high level of public trust in state services.

The Sunday Star-Times investigation into “morning tea tax” found farewell parties accounted for the highest cost to the taxpayer, at $364,882 during the three years since 2009.

Powhiri and morning teas came in at $51,972 and $36,596 respectively.

The biggest spender was the Ministry of Economic Development, with a bill of $76,277 over three years, including $71,147 spent on farewells.

The ministry said the events were “not just about the individual who is arriving or leaving, but contribute to building strong teams who work well together. Our managers continue to be conscious of the need to reduce expenditure wherever possible”.

One of the government's smaller ministries, Te Puni Kokiri, cost taxpayers $40,000. The money was mainly spent on $29,000 worth of farewells.

There were 24 last year.

A Te Puni Kokiri spokeswoman said the organisation takes a "restrained and prudent approach" to approving funding for welcomes and farewells.

Almost $10,000 of the farewell spending was for one retirement party for a senior staff member.

The departing staff member, aged in his late seventies, had given more than 50 years to the navy, the police force and Maori affairs.

"The decision to approve the function with its associated costs was not taken lightly and this one occasion was significantly higher in costs than any other retirement or farewell.

"Given the age of the staff member retiring, his years of public service and the community work that he did, this rare occasion warranted the special attention that it was afforded.”

Policy provided by the agencies showed varying approaches across the state sector - with some providing clear guidelines on spending and others having a broad-brush approach.

Some, like the Ministry for the Environment, noted the “challenge" to find "the right balance between management discretion and the risks of perceived inconsistency”.

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage addressed this by recognising the importance of separating the ministry's contribution to farewells with a subsidy for the usual Friday night drinks.

“As a general rule the official ministry farewell is better scheduled as a morning tea than as evening drinks,” it said.

Health boards and councils also shelled out public money for parties. The Northland District Health Board spent $3400 on a dinner for the outgoing chief executive, and the Tauranga City Council spent more than $10,000 on farewells over three years. This included invitations and a designer booklet for one event.

Some agencies appeared more miserly.

A number of departments and universities asked staff to bring their own morning tea for events, and gifts were bought from staff collections.

Some had per-person caps - $7.50, in the case of the Labour Department, with a ceiling of $200.

The Department of Internal Affairs has integrated many separate agencies over the past three years. A department spokesperson said a modest function was an appropriate use of money to acknowledge staff contributions.

Minister of Local Government David Carter said local authorities should be tightening their belts, much as households were being forced to.

But he would not interfere in councils' operational spending.

“The Government's proposed local government reforms are sending a strong message to local authorities to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.

" In these challenging economic times, ratepayers need assurance that their money is spent wisely."

- Sunday Star Times


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