Whanganui District Council is to get nearly $24 million from a Government fund to help councils shift to a wellbeing mandate that could include climate change, housing, urban design and community wellbeing.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a $2.5 billion package to support councils in reforms to drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services.
She said 80 per cent of the money would be for councils to invest in "the future for local government, urban development and the wellbeing of their communities".
South Taranaki would get $18m from the fund, Ruapehu $16.4m and Rangitīkei $13.3m.
Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall said a first look at the package suggests Whanganui would be better off under the Government's Three Waters reforms.
"You'd be taking away our wastewater, stormwater and drinking water debt – that transfers with the asset – but without the asset base that limits our ability to borrow and a bunch of other things.
"Somewhere around $24 million under the current provisions will be going to the wellbeings and will be very much about building up that asset base again.
"I'll have to dig down into the figures, but at first blush we would be better off."
McDouall, who attended the Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) conference in Blenheim last week, said communities increasingly expect councils to deal with issues such as housing and community wellbeing.
McDouall, who is vice-president of LGNZ, told the conference yesterday people come to councillors with all sorts of concerns.
"Some of them aren't anywhere near our jurisdiction but there's an expectation that we'll be dealing with things like housing or the vaccine rollout. We don't.
"But I think there's an expectation that councils are very much part of the wellbeing of the community, and so it would be good to appropriately treat the community's expectation of councils with the ability to actually do things."
McDouall said he was not completely sold on Government modelling that compared what ratepayers are paying now for water services with projected costs of the future.
But he said amalgamating water services would spread the load when significant investment is needed in the future.
"Some councils around the motu have really not invested appropriately in their water infrastructure and the proposal by the Government discourages good behaviour and encourages bad behaviour. It creates perverse incentives, and that is annoying.
"However, the whole point of agglomerating is to make it more affordable. For example, when our neighbours need their potable water fixed, we will be contributing to their water infrastructure, and vice versa.
"Agglomeration will naturally make most communities better off. I think, for Whanganui, because our wastewater and our drinking water is so good, the benefits in the short term would be fewer.
"The long term is the only reason you'd ever amalgamate water services."
The Prime Minister said $500 million of the support package would ensure that no council is worse off as a result of the reforms and would cover the costs and financial impact of transferring water assets, liabilities, revenue and staff to four proposed new water services entities.
The remaining $2 billion was to ensure councils are better off, despite losing their three waters asset base, and allow councils to focus on "other local wellbeing outcomes".
Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said yesterday that local and central government had similar goals and it was important that the two tiers of government approached challenges together.
She said the reforms will have the best chance of success if all councils participate.
One council, Whangarei, has provisionally opted out from the restructure, and Auckland mayor Phil Goff says he remains unconvinced.
McDouall said the future for local government was a hot topic and had been the focus of several conference sessions.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for local government and central government to advance in partnership.
"What should government look like, whether local or central? The opportunities are massive in that space.
"The discussions are happening – what should we do, what shouldn't we do, what should we do in partnership with tangata whenua in the governance space?"
McDouall said discussions with the council and tangata whenua on the three waters restructure will begin immediately on his return to Whanganui next week.
Cameron welcomes $16.4m
Ruapehu mayor Don Cameron has welcomed the $16.4m for his council.
He said the funding would assist Ruapehu District Council develop areas of focus such as iwi co-governance, climate change and housing.
The impact of Covid-19 combined with impending changes in the local government sector had added to uncertainty for council staff and Ruapehu communities, he said.
"Significantly, the funding announced today recognises the important role local government plays in the wellbeing of their communities both now and into the future.
"Today's announcement – backed with funding and statements of commitment for how local and central government will work together into the future – should go some way towards easing these anxieties," Cameron said.
"We see this package as signaling confidence in local government as an essential partner in both Three Waters reform and other areas critical to Aotearoa-NZ's future."