The debate over Rotorua's infrastructure is fast becoming a hot topic ahead of local body elections next week.

Among the many issues up for discussion are accusations of council overspending on so-called "vanity" projects before finishing the necessities like roading and stormwater.

The criticism has mainly come from candidates for the Residents and Ratepayers group.

"I'd like to see something done with stormwater," said Kevin Coutts.
"The council hasn't been able to provide sufficient stormwater infrastructure," said Lachlan McKenzie.
"Infrastructure seems to be lacking in maintenance at the moment," added Linda Rowbotham.

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It was fitting then that New Zealand's largest infrastructure conference, Building Nations, took place in Rotorua last month with industry leaders discussing the challenges facing regional growth.

"Very few New Zealand roads, with the exception of the new East Link highway, very few are straight roads," said Robert Pigou, head of the Provincial Development Unit.

"We've got a difficult county to work in. We've got challenging topography, seismic issues, we've got waterways that change course from time to time. It's a complicated business."

As well as which infrastructure projects to prioritise, an even bigger problem for councils is how to pay for it. And the overall message from the conference was that rates are not enough.

"We've got to make sure local government is adequately funded – and they're not," Infrastructure NZ CEO Stephen Selwood said.

"Ninety per cent of taxes go to central government but it's actually local government that has to put in much of the infrastructure necessary to support development."

"They have to put up rates for you and I as home owners – and we never want our rates to go up do we – so they're under political pressure always to keep the rates down which means they defer investment when we really need it."

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick says council alone can't cover the costs.

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"We're going to hit a problem in the medium to long term where we're going to need other funding tools to help us to fund that. Costs are enormous."

Selwood says the time is right to review the process.

"It's time for a first principles review of how we plan and fund infrastructure and if we were to do that we could speed up the development and have much more joined up solutions."

Borrowing money is one way for councils to fund projects, an appealing option for Pigou given current low interest rates.

"The Governor of the Reserve Bank, the Minister of Finance, several speakers today... have spoken to the fact that there is an opportunity here perhaps, that we haven't seen for a long, long time with interest rates being so low that it possibly is the right time to borrow and actually start undertaking some of those significant infrastructure upgrades and developments that 20 years ago we probably couldn't afford because interest rates were so high," he said.

Another criticism levelled at Rotorua Council is which projects it chooses to fund. The Lakefront Upgrade, the Green Corridor and the Hemo Gorge sculpture have all attracted criticism, mostly from the Residents and Ratepayers group, keen to see the money spent on underground infrastructure.

Nanaia Mahuta, Minister for Local Government, says you can't divorce the issues of infrastructure from the wellbeing of a community.

"If you're going to a place like Rotorua or Queenstown or Hamilton or to Raglan, I think people will expect a level of service in terms of infrastructure that is able to improve their quality of life," Mahuta said.

Chadwick says tourist assets must be looked after.

"The Lakefront is old, it's dated and it's hardly a wow factor in our town and yet tourism to us is our most valuable investment proposition. The Lakefront and the forest investment is critically important to us, as is the museum."

Whatever the result of local body elections, the decisions the council makes over infrastructure will be felt by residents for decades to come.

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