A tale of too many buildings and too many pipes

Water pipes wait to be laid. PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
Water pipes wait to be laid. PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
How did we end up in this rating mess Gerrard Eckhoff asks.

It has been the best of times; it has been the worst of times. It is the age of wisdom; it is the age of foolishness.

So wrote Charles Dickens 165 years ago which still seems about right today. He also could have concluded "it is the coming winter of despair" due to the 25% rate increases promulgated all over the country. Councils will likely deliver a 15%-plus increase at which we are expected to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

That all seems more than a bit negative until you analyse the reality of today. Rates head the list of massive increases but add insurance, food, fuel, school costs, etc and the cost of an ordinary life becomes unaffordable. The real question is how did we end up in this mess?

No government nor council should ever be immune from the old idiom of cutting their coat according to the cloth, but both appear to just ignore that reality as they see their role as having to just take a deep breath and carry on regardless. That can’t be allowed to happen.

As one of the "privileged" few members of the public allowed to speak to the select committee on the Three Waters hearing in Dunedin, I thought the five-hour round trip might be worth it. Wrong — as five minutes to speak is all that was allowed.

It appears that the ill-conceived Three Waters of the previous government is the root cause of our problems. It all started due to a failure to design and build a simple concrete collar around the cap of the bore from which water was pumped into the Havelock North water supply. Heavy rain washed manure etc into the bore resulting in contamination of potable water. Regrettably, the deaths of some elderly folk occurred.

That was the catalyst for the government’s overreaction and promotion of a grossly exaggerated problem. Yes, the state of Wellington and Auckland’s water pipes are beyond poor and have been ignored by successive mayors and councils in favour of above-ground (vanity?) projects. The rest of the country appears to have just got on with the job of replacing water systems when need be.

Yes, there needs to be ongoing replacement of the Three Waters pipes, but it is entirely reasonable to ask whether water infrastructure should trump building a new community centre in Cromwell at an initial cost of $42 million.

The Otago Regional Council is to spend $56m on a new office block. The inevitable cost overruns will see at least another 10%-20% of captured income being spent on just two buildings in Otago most ratepayers will never use. Should those developments take precedence over the water necessities of the region?

What is very clear is that past decisions are now coming back to haunt us all. It is not the choices made today or yesterday or even a year or so ago that are to blame for our current situation. It is decisions made a decade or so ago that leave us in deficit.

Dunedin has held a successful Pink concert in recent days yet the decision to spend $250m on the stadium, while setting aside the essential water issues, is not the fault of the current councils but rather those in charge a decade ago. The Dunedin City Council-owned lines company Aurora neglected to fulfil their obligation to maintain the electricity network — to assist in the building of the stadium — a cost that is now reborn and laid at the feet of the bewildered ratepayer.

When mayors collectively say the cities and the districts have to face facts, it is reasonable to ask whether the mayors and the councillors have ever bothered to face another set of facts: the inescapable reality/fact that the population can no longer afford local government.

In a working democracy, government or council representatives are merely a conduit to express the opinion of the tax and ratepayer. Councils do have authority but not a social licence to simply take what they need. They too have to live within a budget the people approve of.

It is their responsibility to lighten the burden of others — to again paraphrase Charles Dickens.

— Gerrard Eckhoff is a former ORC councillor and MP and is a ratepayer in Dunedin and Central Otago.