Councils carry out capital projects for a number of reasons but all projects will fit into one or more of three categories: new, upgrade or replacement. When we talk about how councils fund capital works we need to use these terms precisely since different funding streams attach to the three categories.
All major assets will wear out eventually. The lifetime of pipes, roads and buildings is measured in decades but there will still come a point where, even with regular maintenance, an asset has to be replaced rather than patched up.
There is an existing funding stream for replacement via depreciation charges. The vital thing to remember is that the amount of funds collected assumes that assets will be replaced on a like-for-like basis. A narrow bridge attracts depreciation at "narrow bridge" levels not "4 lane motorway bridge" levels.
Over decades circumstances change so it is rare to see a pure replacement project except for some components like a water pump that has a much shorter life. We expect better quality buildings than the ones we built 80 years ago; and we expect better quality roads, water systems etc. For example Dunedin's covered stadium is technically a replacement project since the city was replacing the old Carisbrook facility. But no-one would tear down Carisbrook and simply rebuild it as was, so the new stadium has a lot of upgrade components to it to bring the sporting venue to modern standards (and a bit beyond). However, as the on-going saga of how to fund that stadium shows, depreciation doesn't pay for the new goodies, only for replacing the worn-out components.
New means genuinely new. Either a new asset extends or enlarges an existing network or it provides a completely new service. So putting in new pipes in a subdivision creates new assets as does building a new pump station to service that development. Building a water activity pool next to a swimming pool adds a new asset.
When a project adds capacity to an existing service to cater for growth (as in the former example above) then councils can ask the creators of new properties (usually developers) to make a capital contribution to pay for new assets. These capital contributions can be either or both of financial contributions under the Resource Management Act or development contributions under the Local Government Act.
When councils simply want to do something new (as in the latter example) there is no dedicated funding stream and councils have to find new money themselves.
A pure upgrade project simply lifts the quality of an asset without changing its function or its capacity. A simple example would be replacing older windows in building with double-glazed units. The building has the same capacity and does the same job, it just does it better.
Upgrade projects should not be confused with life-extending capital works. Many assets will survive long past their design life if, from time time, some major money is spent on them to maintain their integrity. In this case it is normal to use accumulated depreciation to fund this type of work.
A reasonably common example of an upgrade project is re-aligning a road or intersection for safety reasons. A corner may be rebuilt or a road straightened but at the end of the project the road is still doing the same job for the same number of users albeit with a lower probability of a serious accident occurring there.
Most upgrade projects have no dedicated funding available. The safety upgrade I mentioned above might attract funding from NZTA under certain circumstances and from time to time there may be some nation-wide subsidy schemes operated by government that councils can take advantage of. But, in general, they have to find the money themselves for these sorts of projects.
Real Life Jumble
In practice capital projects rarely fall into those simple categories and many are funded from multiple sources. So councils have to exercise considerable judgement in deciding how much to fund a specific project from capital reserves (depreciation), how much from development contributions, and how much from debt or other sources. We have to hope they exercise good judgement because their mistakes may take decades to become obvious.
How well does the system work?
We can keep council assets going in their current state indefinitely under current arrangements. The Shand Inquiry was confident that councils would have no significant problems replacing assets over time. Their assessment was backed up by the Auditor-General who also saw no looming problem.
In theory we can also grow our cities using existing funding mechanisms but the system definitely works best when growing out rather than up. It is also a clunky and inflexible system that tends to lock councils into ten or eleven years of commitment that assumes a fixed and predictable rate of growth. As Auckland found out over the last decade assuming steady rates of growth is unwise.
If councils want to avoid levying capital via rates (and they should avoid that practice as it is manifestly unfair) then upgrading existing assets is always going to be difficult. The major source of funds for upgrades is debt. Once a council has reached its practical limit for carrying debt then it is in a difficult place if some new must-do project comes along.
The system works adequately as long as the following conditions apply:
- population growth is low-medium
- population growth is predictable
- the urban form and infrastructure allows for outwards expansion in preference to intensifying existing built areas
- there aren't too many external drivers of change at once
You will note that none of these conditions apply to Auckland.
Some specific problem areas
Upgrading infrastructure to support higher density populations causes all sorts of financial problems. Working in a built environment is more costly than in open fields. But, worse, upgrading often means throwing away serviceable assets in favour of new assets with greater capacity. For councils there will almost certainly be a funding gap that can only be plugged through debt even though they will be able to use both depreciation and development contributions. Again, once a council has reached its debt ceiling it can't intensify any further until some of the debt is paid off.
Councils have a huge off balance sheet liability staring them in the face right now: climate change. Stormwater and drainage systems have been designed for lower intensity rainfall events. They can't handle every event but most common ones they can. But we are already experiencing more frequent events at higher intensity levels and that will be the new normal. Dunedin is the most high-profile drainage failure but we have also had problems in Auckland, Edgcumbe, Hutt Valley and we can expect flooding problems to be more widespread around the country in the future.
Councils have some accumulated depreciation to use to upgrade their systems but that's it. Who knows where the rest is going to come from.
There are other problems heading our way: drinking water (in the aftermath of the Havelock North gastro outbreak), disaster resilience, tourism infrastructure are a few that leap to mind.
There will be funding problems for all of the capital projects that the public may expect or the government may mandate to deal with problems in these areas.