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The urge to merge

The decades-long debate about the desirability of amalgamating Wairarapa’s three councils is up for discussion once more, with the region’s three recently elected mayors expressing a shared interest in advancing the issue.

While Masterton mayor Gary Caffell, Carterton mayor Ron Mark, and South Wairarapa District Council [SWDC] mayor Martin Connelly all have priorities such as roading, finance, and water reform high on their agendas, the potential for a single consolidated local authority for the whole region is also on their minds.

“I think we have a similar view about the need to amalgamate the councils,” Mark said.

Although the three districts are already cooperating closely on key issues, “we are going to have to explore and find other ways in which we can enhance shared services and shared operations”, he noted.

“There is a limit to the level of rate increases you can inflict upon people before you have to start looking at where you can cut costs, cut administration costs, and reduce overheads.”

Mark said some previous roadblocks to amalgamation no longer existed and described the working relationship between the current mayors and deputy mayors of the three districts as “hugely rewarding”.

Caffell agreed with that sentiment: “I’m rapt with the relationship we have with Ron and Martin. We all appreciate that to get anything done on a wider scale in Wairarapa, we must be working together.”

He also viewed amalgamated administration across the region as a matter of when, not if.

“My personal feeling is that amalgamation is inevitable, and it’s just a matter of when it happens. I’m certainly open to that conversation happening in this triennium.”

The size of the region was an important consideration, Caffell said.

“We’ve got three councils with relatively small populations. To me, it makes sense economically, and that’s very important these days.”

Issues of local autonomy were key for many, he noted.

“Giving up local identity is something people really struggle with, and no matter when it happens, there will be resistance against it.”

Connelly said the three mayors had discussed aligning their approach on several issues, but amalgamation had not been the subject of a formal meeting.

“It’s not something that is top and centre of what our council has to be addressing just at the moment. We do have a reasonably solid work programme right now. We would want to get that well settled,” he said.

Central government work programmes that are already underway will also impact how local authorities conduct business in the future, Connelly pointed out.

“If, for example, the three waters programme goes ahead as has been promulgated so far, what you end up with is every council in the country – not just the three of us – suddenly losing a large chunk of the activities we’ve been responsible for. So what does local government look like after that?”

Three waters being implemented in its current form would impact budgeting and finance and have other knock-on effects, as would the reform of the Resource Management Act [RMA].

“One of the plans in the RMA reform is to remove the building consent function from local councils. That’s a reasonably major chunk of what we do,” Connelly said.

“There is some complexity about how the amalgamation would actually take place. Those are quite big questions, and I think they need proper thought and consideration. My pragmatic view is there are many benefits to having the three councils cooperate at a much higher level,” he said.

In December 2017, a referendum on the amalgamation issue was held, with the majority of Wairarapa residents [59 per cent] voting against combining the three district councils.

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