There are roads that need to be upgraded in Waimate. There’s a plan to develop the library. $2.4 million proffered by the Government as part of its Three Waters reforms would have helped the cash-strapped council.

But at a meeting this week, councillors confirmed they would turn down their Three Waters “sweetener” – the only council in the country to do so.

If it was being offered, no strings attached, wasn’t it their duty to ratepayers to accept it?

“Yeah, I do understand that argument,” says mayor Craig Rowley. “You know, it’s always nice to get money. But you’ve also got to weigh up the pros and cons. It just doesn’t sit well with me – right from day one, our council has said that we don’t agree with these reforms. We don’t agree with the assets being taken off our ratepayers.”

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When Kieran McAnulty was promoted to the local government portfolio by new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, the Department of Internal Affairs briefed him on the progress of the Three Waters reforms – and some of the decisions with which he would be confronted.

“The scale of change that the sector is facing should not be underestimated and it is important to recognise that local government is under strain to deliver on the Government’s wide reform programme, including those underway for the Three Waters and resource management systems, as well as responding to issues such as natural disasters and climate change,” officials advised him.

In recognition of the impact of the Three Waters reforms on territorial authorities, they explained, the Government had agreed to provide a $2.5 billion in a comprehensive financial support package. Some of that money was to make good those councils who had paid upfront for their water infrastructure and owed little debt on it – but the remaining $2 billion could be spent on jobs, housing and infrastructure with few if any strings attached.

All but three of the 68 eligible local authorities had put in their applications for “tranche 1” of the funding and been approved $473m.

Since then, Internal Affairs says, another two have lodged their application – leaving just Waimate refusing the money. If councillors change their mind, the purse is still open – but Rowley says Waimate District Council is not for turning.

Whether one agrees or not with the Government’s Three Waters reforms, it’s hard not to admire the stubborn southern principle behind Waimate’s decision to turn it down.

And it’s not just the councillors – Rowley says they consulted the public, too.

“We did go out to the ratepayers. We held public meetings and spoke with them and they were all in favour of us turning it down.”

Last week, Hipkins and McAnulty announced changes to the Three Waters reforms, setting in place 10 regional water corporations rather than four supra-regional ones. They also withdrew the remaining $1.5b of “tranche 2” funding that hadn’t yet been allocated to councils. It will stay on the debt books of the new corporations, for them to use to invest in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.

Some councils, like New Plymouth and Hastings, have been won over by the greater localism in the new model.

Others have expressed some disappointment. Central Hawkes Bay mayor Alex Walker, for instance, has told Newsroom the Government should find the tranche 2 money from its own coffers and make good on its promises.

But not Rowley. He’s not buying any of the changes. “We believe there are some major flaws there,” he says. “And the biggest one is around the accountability to our community. We want our community to have control over what happens with our assets in the future.”

The Government has asked Scottish consultants (peer reviewed by local experts) to forecast the investment required in the country’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater assets over the next 30 years. They’ve come up with $120 to $185 billion – and that doesn’t yet factor in rising costs caused by rapid construction inflation.

But Rowley’s not convinced by that either. “I have yet to meet an economist that can predict out two years, let alone 30 years, as to what the costs are going to be. So they must be a hell of a lot better at it than us if the Government think they can predict out 30 years ahead.”

That’s not to say they won’t have to spend money on their infrastructure. They’ve just spent $1.73m upgrading their Lower Waihao water treatment plant, where locals had been putting up with levels of nitrate as high as 42mg/l – still considered safe to drink, but close to the limit. The council is commissioning a denitrification system to clip onto the side of the new plant.

And they’re negotiating with the Government to get approval to install water filters in the homes and businesses of rural ratepayers – it’s called point-of-delivery. That’s instead of the usual solution of filtering the water at the treatment plants, knowing up to 90 percent of it will go down the throats of stock. “It doesn’t make any sense to us to put in a multimillion dollar treatment plan for each of those rural water schemes, where only 10 to 15 percent of it is used for human consumption.”

But overall, he believes Waimate’s water infrastructure is in pretty good shape; and ratepayers have been happy to pay for it. Losing the assets to a new Canterbury-West Coast water corporation means losing about a third of the council’s operating income, he says. “So that affects staffing and affects our ratepayers.”

Of course, it also means they don’t have to pay the cost of upgrading and maintaining the pipes and plants. But he reckons they could have achieved many of the same efficiencies of scale just by partnering with their neighbours Mackenzie District, Timaru and Ashburton on more modest regional solution. “We went to Department of Internal Affairs and said, we’d like to do some work on this. We just got told, we weren’t thinking big enough.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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