Controversial Funding For Cook Islands Church Merely Settles Debt Owed

Government budget including funds criticized by opposition

By Florence Syme-Buchanan 

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, July 11, 2017) – The government has agreed to pay the Cook Islands Christian Church $800,000 [US$582,000] – money the church says it’s owed for overdue rental on lands in Te Puka, church legal representative Iaveta Short has disclosed.

The money is a final settlement by the government after failing for 20 years to settle debts owed by the Crown to the Church, says Short.

In an emailed statement provided by CICC Secretary General Nga Mataio, Short said: “After a whole lot of hassling we agreed to whittle down the monies the Church claimed as owing by government to $800,000.

“The original claim against government for outstanding rents, interest, costs, and legal and valuation fees was $846,0000 [US$615,000].”

Mataio took exception to an article in yesterday’s CI News which detailed government granting $150,000 [US$109,000] in the 2016/17 financial year through an  executive order to the church and a further $600,000 [US$436,000] in the current budget. 

CI News has been told a further $200,000 [US$145,000] was given to the CICC through another executive order.

 Secretary to Cabinet Aukino Tairea has been asked to confirm whether the second grant was indeed made.

While the church contends the grant totalling $750,000 [US$545,000] is money it is owed for unpaid rental over two decades, the government, on the other hand, describes it as a grant to help construct and furbish the CICC Training Centre at Takamoa Theological grounds.

Said Iaveta Short: “Having agreed on the amount, government had the problem of identifying how they will arrange payment. We, the CICC, were prepared to give government freedom to work out the best way for them to settle the global amount owing.

“They elected to pay part in compensation and the balance by way of grant to the Church.”

The unpaid rental was negotiated by Short, lawyer Tina Browne and major New Zealand law firm Simpson Grierson who was hired by the government to act on its behalf. The government subsequently agreed to settle with the CICC rather than contest the issue in the High Court.

Short says the government faced numerous problems.

“They failed to comply with their obligations under the two leases of Te Puka – eg rents were not paid to the Church, rent reviews were not carried out and as a result government decided that the best way to get out of their problem was to surrender both leases of Te Puka back to the Church. This was done in 1999.”

He explained that in addition to returning the land in 1999 three houses became the property of the CICC. The church agreed for the government to continue to rent the three houses on a normal weekly rent starting off at $150 per house.

“They did not pay any rent despite many promises to that effect and finally we gave notice to evict the Navy personnel from the three houses in Te Puka.

“So part of the money we claimed was outstanding rent for nearly 14 years of the use of the three navy houses. There is no freebie from government to the Church, period.”

Short says while the government “for its own purposes described the payment as a grant, in reality it was a settlement of a longstanding debt owed by the government to the Church.

“The reality is that no government, CIP or Demo, has recognised the enormous contribution the Church has given to the community in a host of areas and without the Church input into community affairs, we would have a far more difficult and ungodly community.”

The Catholic community is to also receive assistance from the government to help rebuild Nukutere College and secure land on which leases have expired.

It means that two of the country’s biggest churches are the beneficiaries of financial handouts amounting to $1.25 million [US$909,000].

The government is standing by its decision to grant money to the CICC to help finance the construction of a new multi-purpose building at Takamoa Theological grounds on Rarotonga. Neither the Financial Secretary nor Finance minister revealed that the CICC was owed money by the Crown for land and property rental.

The two grants have been defended by Finance minister Mark Brown, who says, “it’s the government’s job to do what it thinks is the right thing to do by our people.”

“If it is something the people happen to support, then of course government will be seen in a positive light. But there have also been instances where government has done the right thing but has been criticised for it. We are happy to stand by our decisions.”

He disclosed the government was also assisting the Catholic Church community with a $500,000 [US$364,000] grant. This will be spent on rebuilding Nukutere College and securing land on which a lease to the Catholic Church has expired, confirmed Brown.

He said the land on which national Tereora College stands in Nikao is also due for a rental review and government needs to address this with landowners.

“I have no doubt that government will also need to contribute to other schools both public, church and private as issues around land and lease compensation are now coming due. We will need to deal with these on a case-by-case basis as they come to hand.”

Brown added that the government considered these institutions “…are an important part of the fabric of our society which contribute in their own way to the growth and development of our people.”

The biggest financial contribution to the CICC “…is part and parcel of government’s commitment to supporting our communities and society as a whole,” says Brown.

Criticism has been levelled at the government for spending such large amounts on helping out the churches, some saying there are other areas of greater priority that should have received more assistance in last year’s budget and the current 2017/18 financial year, including the Ministry of Justice, Police and Health.

Brown has refuted allegations that granting $750,000 to the CICC, which has the largest membership in the country, is little more than vote-buying ahead of the 2018 general elections.

He says government believes it is doing the right thing and he did not agree with the allegation.

The Chamber of Commerce was asked to comment for this article but a statement had not been received at the time of going to print.

Short also disclosed the CICC had agreed to lease back to government about 4.5 acres of land where the Telecom Stadium and Education Department buildings are located.

“The Demo Government under Sir Terepai Maoate took the 4.5 acres permanently by warrant without first discussing it with the Church. We obtained valuation and applied for compensation as required by the Constitution and the valuation came to $2.7 million [US$2 million].”

He said the government of the time then changed its mind and “revoked its own warrant and wanted to go back to the original lease.”

This raised legal issues, Short saying government has no power to revoke the warrant for several reasons and the CICC’s legal opinion was that when government revoked the warrant the old lease could not be saved.

Cook Islands News
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