Small rural Central Hawke's Bay district facing steep rise in rates

Waipawa in central Hawke's Bay.
Waipawa in central Hawke's Bay. Photo credit: RNZ

By Tom Kitchin of RNZ

A small rural district in the North Island is facing rates rises like it hasn't seen in years as it grapples with an historic lack of investment.

Central Hawke's Bay Mayor Alex Walker acknowledges it will be tough - but says the state of the infrastructure is frightening.

In the council's new long-term plan, it is proposing rates rises of between 7 and 13 percent each year over the next five years.

That's up from an annual average of 3 percent over the last seven years.

Central Hawke's Bay is home to about 15,000 people. Its two main towns, Waipukurau and Waipawa, are only minutes apart on State Highway 2.

Residents had mixed views on the possible rates hikes.

"Of course we're getting free water and everything but still, you know it's too expensive for our little town like Waipukurau," Michelle said.

"Personally I'd rather not have rates rises, but I don't know, personally too busy at life at the moment to not think too much about it," Jacqui from Ōtane said.

"Well, it's OK if they fix everything. There's problems all around the country, but all the water's falling apart, we're shitting in our rivers, as long as my kid can swim in the river in a few years and we get fresh water to our houses yeah, I don't have a problem with it," Tony of Waipawa said.

In the district council offices in Waipawa, Mayor Alex Walker's office has a hole above her desk.

RNZ asked why it had not been fixed.

"There's a wee hole in the ceiling of my office where the water comes through and collects in the paint," Walker said.

"It's obviously burst - that's why it looks like that and it's not high on the priority list to fix, 'cause we've got other stuff we've got to do."

Walker, who's in her second term, said she was angered by decisions before her time at the council.

Central Hawke’s Bay Mayor Alex Walker (left) and district council chief executive Monique Davidson.
Central Hawke’s Bay Mayor Alex Walker (left) and district council chief executive Monique Davidson. Photo credit: RNZ

"There's a whole lot of things that have happened at a local level and at a national level that have kind of collided here for us in 2021 and so that's what makes me a bit angry because we're now having to deal with a whole lot of stuff that's been kicked down the road in the past and now we've got to deal with it."

She saw this as true in one of the biggest issues in Central Hawke's Bay - wastewater.

A previous council chose a cheap upgrade for the Waipawa and Waipukurau wastewater treatment plants by making them floating wetlands.

But this failed and the council pleaded guilty to discharging contaminants like E-Coli into rivers.

Walker said it was a costly mistake.

"We could be sitting here [saying] that they were heroes and something that was experimental did work but actually it didn't."

Councillors commissioned an independent review, but chief executive Monique Davidson said it wasn't pleasant reading.

"That independent review told us a really sad story, it told us that that wastewater treatment plants, despite the investment over the last decade, were never going to meet compliance."

Waipukurau man Trevor Le-Lievre often submits to the council's plans.

He currently has rates bills of about $60 a week, and feared it could get worse not only for himself, but others.

"It's a huge rate bill and I'm fortunate my wife and I are both working but I feel for some of the superannuants and the people that are really struggling."

Ongaonga resident Clint Deckard said the rates rise could be challenging for some.

Clint Deckard has been a vocal resident of Central Hawke’s Bay in recent times.
Clint Deckard has been a vocal resident of Central Hawke’s Bay in recent times. Photo credit: RNZ

"I can understand where it's coming from, I can understand the reasoning behind it, but that is really going to be difficult for a lot of people."

Chief executive Monique Davidson says the council has looked at the alternatives - but everything had to go up.

"It pulls our debt lever, it pulls our rates lever, it pulls our fees and charges lever and it pulls our development contribution lever, but still has a really clear vision that we want to leverage opportunities where central government can help us out and fund those services and those things that our community need."

The council is opening up the long-term plan for consultation this week.

Meanwhile, many other district councils are grappling with the same question: how can small town New Zealand deal with such huge challenges and how can its people afford it?