Taxpayers are coughing up more than $2 million a year for offices in an inner-city Auckland suburb with space for 350 staff and consultants to bed in the Government’s controversial Three Waters reforms.
A market source told the Herald the Three Waters Reform National Transition Unit had taken a lease of 3100sq m at about $2.1m a year in a modern, five-storey office building in historic Freemans Bay.
The space was large enough for 350 staff, the source said.
The lease includes the two top floors of the Sale St building, with numerous workstations, meeting areas, a boardroom, a huddle room and a large roof deck.
The unit is not commenting on the cost, but a Government source said $2.1m was in the ballpark. National called the cost and staff numbers “outrageous” and queried the need for so many taxpayer-bankrolled contractors and employees.
It comes amid mounting pushback against the Three Waters reforms, including Auckland’s new mayor Wayne Brown instructing Watercare to cease expenditure on it.
In a statement, Three Waters transition unit executive director Heather Shotter said the estimated full-time equivalent headcount at the Auckland office was 250, but this number was expected to grow.
“This will include staff with a nationwide focus on core aspects of the programme such as staff migration, data migration, information management and asset management.
“The Auckland-based staff will be a mixture of direct employees and consultants. Potentially the Auckland office space will also accommodate a number of staff for water services’ ‘Entity A’, who may require interim office space while the entity is fully established,” Shotter said.
Entity A comprises Auckland Council-owned Watercare and Northland councils’ water assets.
Auckland’s is one of several office spaces to support the transition to the new water entities by July 2024.
Shotter said the offices were needed given the scale and scope of the programme, which will see management of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater passed from 67 councils to four new water entities, under a new industry regulator, Taumata Arowai.
“The National Transition Unit is committed to ensuring we have an appropriate presence in all service delivery areas ... we’re also considering where entity head offices should be located,” Shotter said.
The offices’ short-term leases end in July 2024, although the Auckland lease has a right of renewal for one year and a year beyond that.
A spokeswoman for Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said questions about the lease and number of workers in Auckland and other locations were an operational matter for the unit and the Department of Internal Affairs to address.
National’s local government spokesman, Simon Watts, said the cost and number of staff in the Auckland office was outrageous.
“This is another example of wasteful spending by the Government on Three Waters — a fancy office building funded by the taxpayer for consultants and contractors to sell broken reforms.”
Watercare has assured Brown it is not spending ratepayer money on the Three Waters reforms after he wrote to board chairwoman Margaret Devlin calling for any work to stop. Work being done was being paid for by the Government, Watercare said.
Nine days ago, the Auckland mayor, Christchurch Mayor Phil Mauger and Waimakariri Mayor Dan Gordon put forward an alternative proposal to the Government’s plans to create four giant water entities.
Their proposal would maintain crucial aspects of the Government’s existing plan, including the water regulator, Taumata Arowai, while maintaining local ownership, control and accountability. The issue of co-governance would be determined by each local community in consultation with mana whenua.
In April, it emerged the Government was paying up to $600,000 for prime commercial office space on the Auckland waterfront for project work on the cancelled bike bridge.
The lease began three weeks before the Government scrapped the $785m project.