A revolt is in the air in Auckland, as ratepayers ask whether councillors are looking hard enough at the city budget and whether Len Brown needs his wings clipped
Len Brown is now one year into his second term and will be leading Auckland through until September 2016. But it's a very different political environment to election night 2013, when Len was clearly the popular choice as cheerleader of the city.
The scandal that unfolded in the weeks following has obviously permanently damaged his mana as mayor. It has also lead to noticeable loss of public interest in local body politics in Auckland.
But nevertheless Len has the legal power to lead, even he has diminished authority.
So what does this all mean as the Council struggles to settle its budget for the coming year?
There is something of a ratepayer revolt going on. The greatly increased property values have made residents fearful of rates rises. The large and expending debt provides its own worries. It will soon be at a level, relative to rate income, that was sufficient to sink Kaipara District Council.
Of course it is not quite the same. Auckland City has many and more diverse sources of income that means that levels of debt that would be unsustainable in small rural districts can be accommodated by the city. Nevertheless the warning is clear enough. The city, which is only 4 years old, has embarked on some dramatic spending plans that the seven precursor councils could not have contemplated.
I see it in my own neighbourhood. A perfectly serviceable library is being replaced in Devonport with no particular regard to actual need.
So I can imagine the decision to increase rates by 3.5% is not going to go down well. No superannuitant, either from their National super or from interest income has had an increase of income like that – more likely an increase of less than 2%.
What’s worse is that the 3.5% increase is forecast to run for ten years, a cumulative increase of 41%.
So I was surprised to read the Herald editorial on Wednesday advocating that the Council should just storm ahead with the central city rail loop start date of 2016, irrespective of whether the government stumped up with its share prior to 2020.
Is this really prudent planning? Should the Len’s wings be clipped?
Right at the moment all I read about the Council is how they can sting me for more money; higher rates, congestion charging, motorway tolls, regional fuel taxes, with no regard as to whether any of this will even pass muster with the government, who after all actually pays for the motorways.
So as a ratepayer with a keen interest in the future of the city, I would want to see a different path.
- Don’t start the central city rail loop until 2020. Spend the time getting the electric trains sorted and better integrated with bus and ferry services.
- See how the western motorway, with the new tunnel, influences traffic flows in Auckland and tie some of the roading improvements into that.
- Focus on getting more effective busways underway. The Northern Busway has been a big success, at a much lower cost than rail.
- Prune back the size of the city administration. It has grown well beyond what was contemplated back in 2010.
It is time for a new approach rather than the endless rounds of increases in costs and ambitions.
I know that a different approach is possible when dealing with public funds. When I was in government, both my portfolios of Defence and Science had virtually fixed levels of income. There were some small increases in the budget. And this was at a time when in Defence a whole lot of new capital equipment was being introduced into service (ships and helicopters), which was pushing up costs.
By careful juggling of the science budget we were able to get more money into business innovation, and get a start to Callaghan Innovation.
Those councillors who voted for ten years of rates increases need to ask themselves if they have really looked hard at the city budget. Have they taken account of the impact on households, especially those on fixed or smaller incomes?
Because it is hard to see any prudence being shown.