Thousands of Northlanders can expect to pay more for their drinking water in the wake of councils being "bullied" into major post-Havelock North "three waters" reform sign-ups.
That's the warning from a Bay of Islands Far North District Council (FNDC) councillor as the region's three district councils sign up towards getting the first half of a $28.26 million Government carrot for its reforms aimed at improving supply and management of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.
FNDC councillor David Clendon said the Government was bullying councils into three waters reforms that research had already shown would mean consumers paying more.
"Research has already shown people will be facing significant increases in their average customer water bills," Clendon said.
The Government wants to reform three waters provision by slashing the country's current 67 council providers to half a dozen or fewer giant entities. It comes after up to five people died and 5000 people became sick in 2016 through campylobacter contamination of Havelock North drinking water.
"This is the most significant change we have seen in terms of local government reform in the last 30 years," Whangārei Deputy Mayor Greg Innes said.
Far North, Kaipara and Whangārei district councils last week all signed the Government's one-size-fits-all national memorandum of understanding (MoU) to work on three waters reform, just ahead of the Monday August 31 nationwide deadline.
FNDC Mayor John Carter said signing the MoU was a non-binding commitment. It did not require councils to commit to future phases of the reform.
Signing means councils can now access $14.14m split between Far North District Council (FNDC) $5.90m, Whangārei District Council (WDC) $5.89m and Kaipara District Council (KDC) $2.35m in the first lot of three waters reform Government funding.
None of the three councils signed happily.
"There's a sense of being strongarmed," Kaipara Mayor Dr Jason Smith said.
Longtime WDC councillor Phil Halse said three waters was the most significant local government reform in his three decades on the job.
"This is the biggest political change since I have been a councillor.
The reforms were about driving councils into a unitary authority, he said.
Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said signing the MoU had to be done to protect local ratepayers' three waters investment.
"We must be around the table safeguarding the significant investment our ratepayers have made in these [three waters] assets over the years," she said at her council's Thursday August 27 meeting.
"If we choose not to take part in this [signing], we can't take part in discussions, we won't be part of making decisions about where to from here," Mai said.
Kaipara Deputy Mayor Anna Curnow said, "This is a tentative step we are taking with our eyes wide open."
Northland district council chief executives will now prioritise which projects they will use the money for.
Innes has also called for a governance level steering committee.
Simon Weston, WDC general manager infrastructure, said one key piece of work would look at different options for a new amalgamated water entity.
This included investigating a regional and a multi-regional water reform entity. There might be a Northland waters entity, Northland infrastructure entity or other alternative deemed suitable for Northland.
A major driver in councils signing the MoUs was to ensure access to the one-time-only first funding.
This was particularly the case for FNDC which has been hugely drought-challenged.
Far North Deputy Mayor Ann Court said a new water entity would take on council three waters assets as well as debt
FNDC councillor Rachel Smith said councils faced significant costs in three waters infrastructure upgrades and maintenance.
"This is going to be an expensive exercise. We cannot rely on our ratepayers to fund the catch-up," Smith said.
WDC councillor Anna Murphy said climate change meant councils faced mega expenses delivering safe drinking water, wastewater and stormwater into the future.
Another council sign-up driver was to make sure they were part of shaping Northland's three waters reform.
"We must be at the table, as much as it irks me. We have to get into the sandpit and probably flick sand in people's faces," KDC councillor Karen Joyce-Paki (Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Whātua) said.
Water poverty was a massive issue. Communities deserved access to sustainable water.
"We can't be seen to be rolling over, we want our broader outcomes for our community."
Clendon said three waters provision issues would not be solved by the Government's clear amalgamation push.
More money would be thrown at boosting water quality and management as part of Government plans. It would be that money, rather than the amalgamation, that made the difference.
The increased spending would in turn mean people paying more for their water, he said.