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Water woes disclosed in SWDC’s late 2023 report

February 13, 2024 February 2024 No Comments

Dublin St pipe springs another leak amid severe water restrictions.

Water loss in the supply systems of Martinborough, Greytown and Featherston reached 46 per cent last year, and the South Wairarapa District Council (SWDC) fell significantly short on response times when leaks were reported.

Furthermore, SWDC cannot confirm that the towns’ water quality met New Zealand drinking water standards last year. The Council has had to give itself a “not achieved” score on its core obligation to provide “reliable and safe drinking water supplies.”

This information and more is disclosed in SWDC’s 2023 Annual Report, finally made public on 7 December. The document sets out significant activity reporting and annual financial accounts in respect of the year ended last 30 June (ie 2022-23). The information would have been publicly available months ago had the SWDC not missed, once again, the statutory deadline – 31 October – for all council annual reports in New Zealand.

SWDC’s significant activity reporting for 2022-23 shows that of 12 performance indicators for water supply, nine were not achieved. The water loss rate in the town supply systems at 46% – up from 43% the previous year – was well above a performance target of under 30%. Urgent call-out resolutions – where faults are fixed within eight hours of being reported – occurred only in 59% of instances which was down from 61% the previous year (target rate is 90%).

On water quality, SWDC has reported “no” for each of Martinborough, Greytown, Featherston and Pirinoa in relation to Ministry of Health drinking water standards (bacteriological and protozoa) throughout 2022-23, but attributes noncompliance to a problem with its water sensors and to a need for “additional investment.” (So, is the water safe? – Ed).

Some progress has been made in reducing both the South Wairarapa’s daily water consumption per resident, and the rate of complaints received over water quality and supply. SWDC has recorded a 51% satisfaction level among ratepayers and residents surveyed in 2023 on water service (39% in 2022), and an improvement to 41% in urgent call-out notifications that were responded to (although not necessarily resolved) within an hour of notification (33%).

Wellington Water is water services provider for South Wairarapa acting on behalf of SWDC, with the latter accountable for service standards and funding through rates, other charges and borrowing. SWDC financial statements for 2022-23 show a surprising fall in operating expenditure on water supply to $4.47 million ($4.68 million the previous year). Capital expenditure in this area was also down, apparently to $2 million, this being largely investment to replace existing assets. At 30 June 2023, ratepayers owned water services infrastructure valued at $43.2 million.

The year saw SWDC take 16.6 percent more in targeted water rates ($3.77 million compared with $3.23 million in 2021-22). There was an undisclosed level of new borrowing in this area – part of a  $2.5 million increase in total SWDC borrowing between June 2022 and June 2023. The report gives no insight on actual capital works to replace and improve water infrastructure other than reference to relining and reinforcing of the Martinborough reservoir.

SWDC declares in the report that: “Council’s primary aim is to provide reliable and sustainable reticulated water supplies to our three towns and to encourage conservation of this valuable resource.”

That said – and despite the performance indicators – the document’s key opening “Message from the Mayor and Acting Chief Executive” makes no mention at all of water supply.

Instead SWDC leaders discuss, without any reference to finances, the workload in repairing roads after 2023’s cyclone damage, how well council staff are responding to public questions and notifications, how “absolutely thrilled” they are with the new South Wairarapa Dog Pound, and current reviews of council funding models and rating principles. 

Buried in the report’s notes, SWDC acknowledges that because of New Zealand’s change in government (last November) an expected transfer of South Wairarapa water infrastructure assets to a new “water reform” entity from 1 October 2024 might not proceed.

Other information from 2022-23 includes:

  • Total operating expenditure was $33.55 million after post-cyclone roading works blew the SWDC’s annual budget. Land transport spending was $10.42 million, which was $4.3 million above budget. This was partly offset by an extra $2.7 million in Waka Kotahi subsidies, but the effect was to slash SWDC’s annual operating surplus to $1.36 million, less than half what had been planned.  Expenditure was significantly over budget in other areas: land transport aside, SWDC still over-spent its budget for the year by 10.8% (or $2.6 million).
  • Spending on wastewater systems came in 26% above budget at $3.72 million (and this was $567,000 more than the previous year). The financial accounts include no explanation for this, although SWDC clearly has major ongoing projects at the Featherston and Martinborough treatment plants. Of 15 wastewater systems performance measures, eight have been record as “achieved” for 2022-23.
  • Personnel costs were up 16.8% to $6.75 million although SWDC had three fewer employees last 30 June (68) than in June 2022. Of the total last 30 June, 25 were on salaries above $80,000 per annum and eight of these people were paid between $120,000-$259,000. During 2022-23, there was one severance payment of $27,765 to a former employee with no disclosure of identity.
  • SWDC’s total rates take was $21.5 million – 7.6% above the previous year, mainly because of substantial increases in targeted rates for water supply (see above) and wastewater services. Wastewater rates surged 22.6% to $3.1 million. In total, SWDC revenues for 2022-23 were $34.9 million, with rates income topped up by Waka Kotahi subsidies ($5.8 million) and other grants and development contributions ($2.6 million).
  • Borrowing was up to $28.9 million at last 30 June, all of this secured against general or targeted rates revenue and with a weighted average interest rate of 3.27%. Despite the higher borrowing, SWDC has maintained a strong balance sheet with equity equivalent to 94% of total assets ($602.78 million) at 30 June. SWDC had cash and term deposits totalling $12.9 million at balance date as its higher rates take during the year accommodated expenditure persistently ahead of budget.

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