Fears council shake-up will see Wellington Citizens Advice Bureau offices scrapped, funding cut

Reihana Apene turned to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) when she felt she had nowhere else to go.

The council is considering changes for the community service. Source: 1 NEWS

"Before I walked in that door and had a face to face conversation … I could not see the end of it, I could not see anything," she told 1 NEWS.

Ms Apene had to stop working due to an illness and had racked up debt when she approached CAB.

"It was good because I didn't know where to go, I didn't know who to go to," she said.

The bureau volunteer sent her away with information to use when approaching businesses on two occasions, which didn't do much to change the situation.

Feeling even more vulnerable, Ms Apene contacted the CAB once more and the volunteer suggested coming to her if she couldn't get to the bureau.

"It was just nice to know that someone is there for you when you need… when you want them to be there," she said.

The volunteer handled all communication with the businesses from that point on and Ms Apene holds him responsible for getting her out of hardship.

The volunteer called her several months later to see how things were going.

"I paused and I actually burst out into tears and I went, 'Oh my gosh, you actually are here and caring for me' and he said, 'Of course, we don't just close your record and be done with you.'"

This is just one experience of the more than half a million people that contact the Citizens Advice Bureau for help in New Zealand each year.

Last year, over 31,196 people contacted CAB in Wellington alone. That figure has steady risen from 24,980 people in 2013.

In Wellington, the largest group seeking support is those aged 20-29.

Other clients told 1 NEWS they received help for "dodgy clauses" in a tenancy agreement where CAB rang the letting agency on their behalf, for budgeting advice after a decade of living overseas, for legal advice and to help after an elderly woman had money stolen in an online scam.

Wellington City Council is reviewing its funding for the organisation, with a final vote being made next week over a proposal to cut guaranteed funding after six months and evict bureaus from several council spaces.

Ms Apene is worried if this happens, other people won't be able to be helped to the lengths that she was helped.

"If we don't have them, where are we going to go? Not all people have access to Google.. some people probably don't even have a cell phone," she said.

Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association President Marlon Drake said students utilise the service and with a tight rental market and tenancy requirement changes, the support is more necessary than ever.

Mr Drake said the council proposal was disappointing.

Community and Voluntary Sector Minister Peeni Henare said he supports the kaupapa for Citizens Advice Bureau and had seen the benefits of the service in Auckland's Manurewa.

He said he couldn't comment on the Wellington City Council funding proposal.

The council currently funds 85 per cent of Wellington CAB, giving $210,000 every year. It provides space for three bureaus with no cost for rent or power.

CAB chief executive Kerry Dalton says the current service model is highly effective, with high demand for its website information and face to face service.

"Being asked to change that when there's no evidence that something else is going to work better does not make sense to us," she said.

Ms Dalton said she understands the council would like to see the service become mobile as well as undergo a funding overhaul to remain sustainable.

"We've got experience that shows us that it's having service delivered consistently from the same place that is the most effective thing because people know where to go and when the service is going to be there."

The council is questioning whether the current organisation is reaching those most in need, according to Councillor Brian Dawson.

"There are some very deprived communities in Wellington so we want to make sure that they are reaching the most vulnerable people in the community," he said.

He said the council also wants the organisation to improve access to their services and review how they could work with other organisations and agencies "so there was less duplication of resources".

He said the yearly funding is one of the council's biggest community grants and the council is reviewing where its priorities for funding lie.

"I wouldn't like to see their service removed, I'm sure we can find ways to make sure that that doesn't happen… I do want to make sure we’re spending ratepayers money in the best possible way," he said.

A petition with hundreds of signatures calling for ongoing council support for the organisation will be presented at a council meeting next Thursday. A decision is expected to be made on the funding proposal then.