8 Apr 2020

Covid-19: Councils face pressure for services as revenue drops

5:53 am on 8 April 2020

Local authorities are having to face their own pressures under lockdown making sure everything behind the scenes keeps ticking.

23062016 Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King. Wellington City Council.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Councils are having to maintain their services with a limited number of people in crucial positions, a shortfall in income revenue, and a change in focus with everyone at home.

They are responsible for the work we take for granted - from kerbside rubbish collection to the running of clean water in our homes.

Everything has to remain on track, and it has been made all the more important with everyone remaining at home.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Local Government NZ president Dave Cull said the pressure on councils to deliver was being cranked up, which in turn was putting a strain on essential workers.

"Maintaining essential services in some places will become more challenging," he said.

"We've heard from some councils they can maintain the services at the moment, but if any staff members get sick, that's when the challenges will start."

No caption

LGNZ president Dave Cull Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

Providing those services would become even harder with less money coming in.

"About 60 percent of councils' revenues comes from rates, but the rest comes from charges for various things. Now, a lot of those just stop happening - a lot of people aren't going to be paying for building consents and things like that.

"Councils have already got a drop in revenue, but they still need to spend on the essential things. Looking ahead, if there was intention to invest in upgrading infrastructure or replacing infrastructure, that still needs to happen.

"The water pipes under city streets aren't going to stop corroding, they're not going to stop wearing out, they're still going to need to be replaced."

There are also calls for councils to share their experiences and work together to overcome these significant obstacles.

Wellington water under the pump

Wellington City Council is having to face both these problems head-on.

Wellington Water chief executive Colin Crampton said they only had emergency crews working, but were particularly reliant on a few essential staff members.

"Our concern is that if any of our workers were to suffer the effects of Covid-19 then our ability to respond to the needs for essential services would be reduced," he said.

A man wearing an orange vest.

Wellington Water chief executive Colin Crampton Photo: RNZ/ Michael Cropp

He said they had changed they way they worked to ensure those key staff were staying healthy and not at risk.

"We're duplicating all our essential activities out on the field," Crampton said. "That means we are trying to have twice as many workers to do that work than we would normally need.

"Because we are splitting those workers up into one- and two-men crews, we believe that will be effective no matter what the outbreak of the virus is in our workforce."

He said he was confident in the organisation's ability to keep operating and keep providing services, but the help of the general public was crucial.

"A lot of the bursts we attend to can involve wet wipes, or fats that are not disposed of correctly, and other foreign objects that can go down the wastewater system.

"If residents understand that the way they manage themselves at home directly relates to how many bursts and things we have to attend on the network, so if that can go down, that would be a big help as well."

Wellington's financial pressures

Councils are also no longer receiving money from services like pools, gyms, or on-street parking, and with recession looming there is pressure to freeze rates.

Wellington City Council is looking at a fiscal shortfall of around $60m to $70m.

Councillor Jill Day said now was not the time to stop spending, however.

"There's some really big infrastructure projects which would be good to get them going ... we need them from the point of view of resilience.

"We've also got projects like the playground at Frank Kitts Park - it's shovel ready, the plans have been done, there's consent. It'd be a real morale booster for the city."

She said the playground upgrade would be good for the kids, for employment, and for the businesses working on it.

Investment would also be needed in communities, she said.

"There's lots of amazing organisations out there which we give funding to, and they're always needing more funding, and trying to make it go as far as it possibly can ... but we're going to see these organisations play a really important role in supporting community."

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs