As the Government continues to face heat over its controversial Three Water reforms, it has announced it will give at least $350,000 to each of the 67 councils in the country, saying it was to help councils bed in the reforms.
The $44 million package is on top of an earlier funding promise of $500 million, which was to allow councils to pay for "wellbeing investments" such as swimming pools – but which has been criticised as a "bribe" by those opposed to it.
The announcement comes on the eve of the Local Government NZ conference in Palmerston North, where a raft of ministers are set to speak and Three Waters is on the agenda.
The water reforms have split councils – about half have joined the Communities 4 Local Democracy coalition opposed to the reforms as they are currently proposed.
Associate Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty said the reforms would deliver "significant cost savings" to councils and ratepayers in the long run, but the Government acknowledged extra resources were needed in the short term to get it up and running.
The reforms will move the management and assets of drinking, waste and storm water management into four regional entities. While councils will own those entities, they would have minimal control over the assets. The legislation to create the entities is currently going through Parliament – earlier this week, the Labour Party put out a call for its supporters to put in submissions in support of it.
McAnulty said he had been visiting rural and provincial councils since he was appointed associate minister, and they had reported the demand on their staff time and resources from the reforms.
"The Three Waters reform is the largest change local government have faced in a long time, and is creating additional work for councils who are already under strain from staff shortages, winter illness, and Covid.
"This funding will allow local authorities to draw in expertise to support Councils through the Three Waters transition period, and continue business as usual."
He said every council, regardless of size would get $350,000 over 12 months. Top-ups would be based on the funding method being used for the Better Off fund – the $500m fund councils can use for other "wellbeing" measures, such as pools, parks and gardens.
McAnulty defended the need for the reforms, despite the set-up costs.
"While we always knew there would be cost in the transition, that cost is dwarfed by the $185 billion bill ratepayers would face to maintain and upgrade infrastructure over the next 30 years.
"Without reform, a household would face water costs of up to $9,000 per year, or the prospect of services that fail to meet their needs."
He said he had heard a range of views on Three Waters, but most councils had told them they understood the need to reform the current system.
The Groundswell group – which opposes Three Waters and a range of other reforms affecting the rural sector – is protesting in Palmerston North during the LGNZ conference this week.