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The $761million the Government has dangled to help local government upgrade drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure across New Zealand has been welcomed by Otago mayors.
But as details emerge of the Government’s three waters reform, an "absolute bottom line" must be that the assets remain in public ownership, Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins said.
Otago and Southland councils had worked to keep apace with pressure on three waters after the fatal Havelock North campylobacter outbreak in 2016 propelled public water infrastructure into the spotlight.
Mr Hawkins said this week’s announcement by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta of a first tranche of funding was not a surprise.
Yet as the Government looked to create what Ms Mahuta described this week as "public multi-regional water entities" that addressed catchment-related and communities-of-interest matters and could help smaller councils deal with issues of scale, Mr Hawkins said he hoped "that we’d have the opportunity to design something that works for us" that also met the Government’s aims.
"They’ve been very strong on the fact that whatever it looks like, the assets will remain in public ownership," Mr Hawkins said.
"That needs to be an absolute bottom line, and entrenched so as to protect it from future governments with different priorities."
Council infrastructure services general manager Simon Drew said the drinking water in Dunedin was "absolutely" safe, but there would be projects the council could spend on.
It was not yet clear what, exactly, the $761million announced could be spent on.
"There’s still a lot of questions to be answered," Mr Drew said.
"It’s all the detail that we’re interested in."
Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said it was important the Government had made the first tranche of money "opt in".
"It’s a good sign of trust from central government to local government, which is good because generally a lot of us are doing a lot of good work," Mr Kircher said.
"By not having a whole lot of conditions on the money, [they are] trusting us to actually make the best choices for our communities as to where we spend that, whether that’s on improving our water supplies, or improving our waste water treatment plants, or whatever it might be."
Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan said because the money did not commit councils to any long-term course of action, "you’d be foolish to not at least consider your options".
"The first tranche of money does not lock you in — but we need to ratify our position as a council and I have not had the chance to do that yet."