17 Dec 2020

New Plymouth faces decade of rates hikes to tackle infrastructure woes

12:58 pm on 17 December 2020

The mayor of New Plymouth wants to hike rates by 12 percent to get on top of the city's water infrastructure woes - a bumper rise that would only mark the start of a decade of steep rates increases.

Paritutu Rock in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Paritutu Rock in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Photo: Unsplash / Simon Infanger

Neil Holdom is also calling for the introduction of water meters - but promises it won't lead to private ownership.

Sceptical councillors say the cost of the mayoral recommendation on the city's draft 10-year plan is too much and the city can save cash elsewhere.

Water woes

A single fallen tree during Cyclone Gita laid bare the perilous state of New Plymouth's water infrastructure in 2018.

It broke a water main, causing 10,000 homes to lose water for three days and forced another 26,000 to boil water for more than a week.

Since then a combination of lack of investment, human error and heavy rain events have seen health warning signs become a depressingly regular sight at the district's rivers, streams and beaches.

Water tankers have been deployed in New Plymouth after ex-Cyclone Gita damaged a crucial water pipe.

Water tankers were deployed in New Plymouth after ex-Cyclone Gita damaged a crucial water pipe. Photo: SUPPLIED/ New Plymouth District Council

Now, Holdom wants to spend more than $300 million sorting it out.

"This is really a way of saying we are going to own this problem and solve it. And these are the costs," Holdom said.

"Nobody likes getting a big bill from the plumber, but most people accept the alternative is unpalatable and that they just need to get on and get it done well."

Despite this investment, the way the system was designed meant sewage spills were still likely in heavy rain events, he said.

What about the rates?

After the initial 12 percent hit, rates are proposed to go up on average 7 percent in each of the next nine years.

For the average household the increase will amount to $231 in the first year, $140 towards failing water infrastructure, and $90 for general rates.

Average household rates in New Plymouth are currently $2450 per annum, and would go up to about $2681 in the 2021/22 year under Holdom's proposal.

Homeowners could expect to start paying for their water usage in 2024.

Holdom said he knew water meters would be contentious.

"We are stressing rivers to pull water out that people are using to wash their cars and water their gardens, so in many ways tip it down the drain.

"We'll save money over time and protect the environment, but we realise there is a concern with water meters that it could lead to something else and just to be clear we're 100 percent committed to water assets remaining in public ownership in perpetuity."

Holdom had still found space for nice-to-haves such as $40m towards a multisports hub and a $26m extension of the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway to Waitara.

Neil Holdom.

New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The opposition

Maverick councillor Murray Chong said he was unlikely to support the mayor's recommendation.

"We've always said that rates would be on average 3.5 to 4 percent and rates rises of no more than 5 percent in any one year," Chong said.

"Now amazingly this is more than double that this year and I don't think the ratepayers are going to be happy with that."

Nice-to-haves needed to go in favour of the infrastructure investment, Chong said.

He had the Govett Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre, in his sights.

"We got told that would cost $900,000 a year to run. It's now costing just over $5 million to run which is over $100,000 a week of ratepayer money."

New Plymouth councillor Murray Chong.

Murray Chong. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Veteran councillor Gordon Brown said residents might just have to suck up the rates increases.

"I'm sure the initial reaction will be of shock and I think that's also the reaction around the council table.

"Nobody wants to go near a figure of that magnitude, but the reality is we have problems and there's only one way to infrastructure problems, acknowledging it's absolutely crucial to what we do, and that's to spend a whole bunch of money on it."

Brown could also see cost savings.

He was targeting the Coastal Walkway extension.

"The actual path is going on the land side of the airport for goodness sakes. It's not even on the coastal side.

"So it's no longer the beast it was. It's far more expensive and I'm sorry that's the one nice-to-have that I'll be voting against at this stage unless I hear some compelling evidence to the contrary."

The mayor's pitch won few fans on the streets.

One gentleman who preferred not to give a name was none too impressed.

"That's a load of bollocks. That should have been looked after over the last 20 or 30 years not now and there's no way I want to be paying that."

Sue was a bit more forgiving.

"I certainly think we need water meters. We need to do something about our water. And I'm sure have to go up a bit as well. I think it's just something we have to face."

Tony was a naysayer.

"Nobody keen on a rates hike and I'd be pretty anti water meters. I'm not keen on them."

Brown could see another way.

"Well you know it's appalling to someone now I'm on a fixed income and although I quite understand things need upgrading, but that's throughout the country, and perhaps they could go to central government."

Holdom's proposal will be debated in front of the full council on Tuesday.

Once agreed, a draft long-term plan will then go out for further public consultation before coming back to council for final sign of in the middle of next year.

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