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Council has a water reform information drought

Carterton District Council [CDC] is preparing to deal with several risks associated with wide-ranging water reforms passing into law.

A report tabled at yesterday’s CDC Risk and Assurance committee listed key risks, including the transition and establishment process of the Wellington region water services entity for Carterton, continuity of service for customers, staff transition, and customer billing.

The passing of the Water Services Entities amendment bill last week means councils face uncertain go-live dates, uncertainty for staff, and questions about billing, assets and debt transfer, the committee heard.

[The associated Water Services Legislation Bill passed its third reading yesterday, and the third and final water reforms bill – the Water Services Economic Efficiency and Consumer Protection Bill – “is set to pass its third reading in the coming days”, according to a spokesperson for Wairarapa MP and Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty.]

Committee members noted that current political uncertainty ahead of the upcoming election has a further impact.

A draft timeline for the establishment of the new programme was tabled, noting no ‘go live’ dates for any water service entities had been set except for Auckland and Northland, which is July 1, 2024.

“The lack of confirmation from the government on the ‘go-live’ timeframes creates significant uncertainty,” CDC chief executive Geoff Hamilton, who authored the report, said.

Uncertainty about which staff might be affected was highlighted as a major issue.

“Staff having uncertainty is the biggest detractor in terms of employment, and keeping our staff both interested in their day-to-day jobs and having a belief there is a future for all of them as part of this transition is really important,” Hamilton said.

“Our focus will go on both the staff that are going to transition to three waters reform, those that could potentially transition or may stay with council, and those that are left behind. Probably our biggest unknown with all of this is how we will continue to manage staff engagement throughout this process.”

A further significant risk is uncertainty for ratepayers, with unknowns around how the new entities will charge for water.

Carterton mayor Ron Mark said it will be important for ratepayers to have security.

“I don’t think I have seen a time when there has been such reform,” he said, referring to both the water-related and other recent legislation.

Mark said many questions, unfortunately, are not able to be answered at this time.

Hamilton said an issue CDC will face in the future is managing users’ expectations.

“The challenge will be for us is that we will own the community relationship, and we will be the first port of call for the community to come to when things go wrong. Our challenge will be how do we deal with community expectations for things that we can really no longer control,” he asked.

Mark said the potential impact of the water reform for CDC is wide-ranging.

“We have no control over the asset management plan, no control over the capital plan, we have questions around delivery of service both as to quality and customer satisfaction levels, and we have no understanding what the cost to our ratepayers is going to be once this entity comes into being and starts charging,” he said.

The committee resolved to receive the report, commend the staff who prepared the document, and send a copy of it to the Department of Internal Affairs and to Wairarapa MP and Minister of Local Government Kieran McAnulty.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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