Opinion by Councillor Cameron Brewer
Former Act leader and Minister of Local Government, Rodney Hide, did a great job amalgamating the eight former regional, city and district councils into one unitary authority, Auckland Council. The architecture has proven to be sound with no serious legislative changes mooted. However while the architecture of the Super City remains sound, benefits for ratepayers that should have been delivered have yet to be delivered by the local body politicians.
The public of Auckland was told that it wasn’t necessarily going to be any cheaper, but one council would be better on their back-pockets now and in the future.
Nearly two and a half years into the Len Brown centre-left inaugural council, most ratepayers would argue their back-pockets have yet to see any benefits. But when you consider the personalities involved that’s not surprising.
Only a few years ago the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor were adamantly opposed to amalgamation. They were marching in the streets against the prospect of Auckland Council.
In essence the Mayor will never be interested in driving and delivering on all the amalgamation’s financial promise and potential, because he never wanted it in the first place. What drives him is community development and pulling the once disparate areas of Auckland together and on that front he has done well.
But let’s not forget the primary drivers of this amalgamation were economic. So how are we doing?
In the current financial year, over half of Auckland households are paying an average of 8.1% more in rates than last year, and the news gets no better in the coming financial year for wards like mine. In the ward of Orakei 67% of households are up for another 5 – 10% rates increase from July. The Left’s low Uniform Annual General Charge is not helping.
Like 133,000 other households, I am paying the full 10% cap this year and will again next year, and the following. That’s because my rates went up 32.4%, with the increase split over three years. So while I’m paying 10% more in Ellerslie after municipal amalgamation, the average Christchurch resident is paying 7.8% more after their massive earthquakes. Go figure!
Mayor Brown is going around telling everyone that the average regional rates increase for 2013/14 will be 2.9% but that’s not how it will be felt by many, particularly on the Auckland isthmus.
In fact the old Auckland City Council area will also have to get used to user-pays rubbish in the next couple of years, not to mention ongoing regulatory fee increases. Then we have the prospect of tolling the existing motorway network and/or a regional petrol tax, as well as the plan to ban all open fireplaces, but I digress.
Debt at Auckland Council is growing at nearly $3m a day. Our latest 2011/12 Annual Report showed that total council group debt has increased by $1b, from $4.0b to $5.0b in just 12 months. Now that’s nothing on central government’s ongoing borrowings, but we are not even a state government. We are a local council, yet the plan is to triple council debt this decade and already the debt ceiling has been lifted to enable this.
In this relatively flat economic environment household debt has been shrinking and the Government rightly remains committed to getting back into surplus, so it’s totally out of whack that council borrowings have gone up 25% in the past year alone.
It is future ratepayers who will be lumped with the crippling interest payments, projected to be close to ½ billion dollars a year by the end of this decade. Not to mention Eden Park!
The latest annual report also revealed that 1,165 staff now earn more than $100,000 and 123 earn over $200,000. Comparative figures show that we pay our executives, specialists and managers much more than what Air New Zealand pays. So if your son or daughter wants to become a pilot, tell them to become a public servant!
There seems to be a job for everyone in Auckland Council. That same annual report, published late last year also revealed that the number of full-time equivalent staff went up 12% from an estimated 7,200 to 8,040. That’s 840 more staff in 12 months, taking the wage bill to over 2/3rds of a billion dollars or $670m, and that is just FTES. There are even more individuals on the books, and of course these numbers exclude the many consultants and contractors engaged by the council.
Rest assured we will be watching further creep on staff numbers and costs. That’s not what the people of Auckland were promised. Nor did ratepayers think the Mayor’s Office would come with six spin-doctors and a budget of $4.9m a year to run.
The Government’s Better Local Government reforms are all about tightening the leash but so far we’ve seen little real change. Some of us however are looking forward to the second part of the reforms to be introduced to Parliament by the new Local Government Minister. My message to Chris Tremain is keep the pressure on. Local Government New Zealand told us from their ratepayer-funded Queenstown conference last year that it doesn’t like these reforms, but the public does.
One project that’s really going to put pressure on Auckland Council’s 500,000 ratepayers now and in the future is the City Rail Link.
On Monday the Minister of Transport said he thought that 2030 was a more realistic delivery date, but the Mayor won’t hear it. He wants to cut the ribbon in eight short years and rest assured the borrowing is already in full swing to achieve that completely unrealistic timeframe.
In the council’s draft annual plan another $180m is set aside for this project for this coming year.
This ratepayer-funded spending comes without any government commitment whatsoever. The Prime Minister is on the record for saying the CBD project at this point in time just simply doesn’t stack up and will do little to reduce Auckland’s region-wide congestion. Nonetheless the ratepayer is now committed, like it or not.
The $2.8b City Rail Link has gone up six fold in estimated cost in the past eight years, and as sure as night follows day the cost will keep going up. Amazingly, the nearly $1 million a metre cost, and the fact that the Government remains completely unconvinced and uncommitted, are not the most concerning aspects of this project.
The biggest worry is that this project almost completely strangles every other potential public transport project, at a time when rail patronage is falling.
According to Auckland Transport’s Draft Auckland Regional Public Transport Plan published in October, “approximately 80 percent” of the region’s 10-year public transport infrastructure budget is set to be solely allocated to the City Rail Link. The remaining 20% will be thinly spread across all other regional rail improvements, new and improved ferry terminals, bus lanes and corridors, and park and ride facilities.
Spending approximately 80 percent of the 10-year budget on this one CBD-based project, where less than 10 percent of Aucklanders’ live or work, is not a balanced approach, and will not deliver a strong and mixed integrated transport system.
At the very least, let’s first secure some government commitment, and let’s get some agreement from the motoring public that they’re prepared to pay tolls or more fuel taxes, before we commit the poor old suburban ratepayer any more.
Just on Auckland Transport, that council-controlled organisation is working well but there are concerns that where we might’ve once had territorial silos under the old structure, now with our seven CCOs, we’re possibly seeing departmental silos emerge with some empire building well underway.
I support further rationalisation of our CCOs. I support a greater role and greater budgets for our 21 local boards. I support a renewed focus on the council getting its overheads down. I support a greater focus on core council business, and I support the Mayor learning to say no. I also want to see a more functional relationship with central government.
Next month the Auckland Council releases its draft Unitary Plan for public input. The plan is for widespread intensification. Our town centres and suburbs will be changed forever. It will mean another burst of infill and many angry neighbours. We’ve been told for two years by the Left that the public wants a “compact city”, let’s now see. Consultation closes 31 May. Get involved.
I want to also talk about the election promise of greater transparency and accountability. And give you two examples from many of where this council has erred.
Two weeks ago the Office of the Ombudsman confirmed it will investigate my complaint over the council’s refusal to disclose what it has paid its different legal providers over the past two years. The Auckland Council and its CCOs last year spent over $20m on lawyers, but only Watercare was prepared to reveal how much it paid each external provider.
The ratepayers’ right to know how much of their money is being pumped into which lawyers surely overrides the need to protect our city’s big law firms. I await the Ombudsman’s ruling with interest.
Secondly when it comes to the promise of greater transparency and accountability, the plan to put up to $30m of ratepayers’ money for a whitewater rafting facility does not live up to best practice.
This pet project of transforming the paddock that sits between Manukau’s TelstraClear Stadium and the Southern Motorway into rapids is set to leapfrog its way into this year’s council budget. This is despite the project being resoundingly voted down by the previous Manukau City Council and the fact that it was not part of Auckland Council’s 10-year Long Term Plan.
So while the kids of Manukau are set to get a cool whitewater rafting facility, from 1 July the roadside grass verges throughout the former Auckland City area will no longer be mowed by the council.
That is how crazy things have got. Whitewater rafting is now council business, mowing council-owned lawns is not.
Yes make a submission to our draft 13/14 budget by 4pm this Monday, but more importantly the centre-right needs your support this spring, with the postal ballot results for the local body elections set to announced on Saturday 12 October.
The focus for some of us is not on the mayoralty. The focus will be on getting the numbers around the table but it will be an uphill battle. Only five of us councillors voted against the Mayor’s $58b 10-year budget last year. We’ve got a lot of work to do if the centre-right is to gain the majority – that is at least 11 around a table of 21.
The first job of the new council will be to appoint a new council chief executive from a short-list of candidates. That is another key reason why the 2013 local body elections are critical for ratepayers.
Don’t be fooled by those councillors who masquerade as centre-right. Look at their voting record when they’re at the town hall. Despite north of the harbour bridge being painted blue in Parliament, at Auckland Council only Cr George Wood provides a centre-right voice and vote.
Yes the council has transitioned and worked well enough at an operational level, yes the Super City architecture has stood up to public and political pressures, but no the many promises of amalgamation have not, and will not, be fully realised by the current leadership.
Auckland’s ratepayers were promised much more and deserve much better.
This is an edited version of a speech by Councillor Brewer to the Act Party conference at Kaukapakapa on Saturday.