Wellington Water pleased with council's $1.1 billion recommendation to fix failing pipes

By Soumya Bhamidipati for RNZ

Wellington Water is pleased with the 'significant increase' in proposed funding from the city council, despite it being less than half the maximum amount sought.

At a long-term plan workshop on Wednesday afternoon, council staff recommended putting $1.1 billion towards water infrastructure over the next 10 years - less than half the $2.5b suggested by the region's water agency.

Wellington Water chief executive Tonia Haskell said any decisions on funding sat with councils, but she was pleased Wellington City Council was proposing to increase its investment.

"Our role is to provide our owner councils with best practice advice on their water assets ... they set the budgets, and we work to those budgets," she said.

"We appreciate any funding our councils can provide us. We acknowledge that they have to make some hard decisions to strike a balance between investment in water services and other council priorities."

Haskell said the sum presented "a significant increase and is a big step forward in mitigating the water risks that the city faces", despite being below Wellington Water's ideal figure.

"Our role is to provide our owner councils with best practice advice on their water assets ... they set the budgets, and we work to those budgets," she said.

"We will work with WCC to prioritise what will be delivered and are committed to using the funding effectively on behalf of the city's ratepayers."

However, the investment would come at a cost, with cuts proposed to the city's libraries, swimming pools, and security cameras, while the council's New Year's Eve celebration and annual firework display could also be axed.

The city council had already found savings of more than $360 million, including dumping $135m of funding for cycleways and footpaths.

The investment into water infrastructure could also mean rate hikes of more than 15 percent. On the streets of Wellington, one homeowner said big increases were unavoidable.

"Ratepayers have to be prepared to foot some of the bill as well as, if we can ask the government for subsidies as well. I don't think we can just walk away and say 'Oh, it's somebody's fault and we're not paying', because we have to pay, otherwise we won't have water."

Varied views around the council table

The council was considering delaying its project to pedestrianise Lambton Quay, saving $16m. Upgrades to Courtenay Place would still happen as planned, but Councillor Tony Randle said those should be delayed too.

"Doing Courtenay Place in isolation doesn't seem to make sense to me under the design that was actually one piece of the jigsaw of a big programme that included light rail."

Councillor Iona Pannett wants the Golden Mile project stopped completely, while councillor Ben McNulty said even higher rates could be the only feasible solution.

"There's a sort of desire to keep rates around the 15 percent increase here. There might be something warranted in going to Wellingtonians and saying would you accept 20 percent if there was a guarantee of ring-fencing around that additional money, and that was to go straight into water. That would really be the only alternative option."

Councillor Rebecca Matthews said scrapping the expensive town hall rebuild would save millions.

"Restoring a building that is so expensive that it would never be built today, that the city hasn't had the use of for some time, wasn't a priority for me and it still continues to be not my priority, however, I haven't been able to convince my colleagues of that."

The debate about cuts to services would continue on 15 February, when councillors gathered to deliberate the draft budget.