Guarding our strong suits

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    Auckland Council collects $6.5 billion in revenues and the hurry-hurry adoption of legislation for a proposed regional fuel tax would add $1.506 billion. At the same time, its ratepayers support more than 11,000 employees. 

    Eleven hundred is the theoretical number of staff above which organisations –  business or otherwise – stop being a viable workforce and typically become an internally-referencing seethe of ladder-climbing disfunction. Rodney Hide’s reconstituted supercity exceeds that by a factor of ten.

    As a NZ Herald letter writer pointed out earlier this week, Brisbane’s council, serving 2.34 million citizens, gets by with 8000 on its payroll – a good target for Mayor Phil Goff’s promised savings, suggested Tony Gavigan of St Mary’s Bay. 

    Dropping 194 employees paid more than $200,000 down to 40 would save $31 million a year; halving the 2321 paid over $100,000 would save a further $151 million and there could be a general vote among the remaining 8000 (those paid less than $100,000) on who else should go to save citizens a further $100 million a year, he said.

    The 1991 Resource Management Act was based on sustainable management. It was defined as “managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while  (a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and (c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment”.

    We on Waiheke – too small and too annoying a community to pull down budgets for local priorities from the successive Auckland supercities of the last 30 years – quoted it, often despairingly.

    At least, we did until 2017, when the previous National-led government passed amendments that re-defined councils’ functions “to ensure that there is sufficient residential and business development capacity to meet expected demand”.

    Last month, deploring this narrowed statutory purpose of local government which focused only on service delivery and not broader community well-being, Labour Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced a new emphasis on the promotion of social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of communities to the statutory purpose of local councils.

    It’s to be welcomed, as any goal-setting game-changer is. 

    However, the two new Bills also aim to re-introduce the ability of councils to collect wider development contributions, “giving councils back the ability to fund increased demand for community facilities, such as libraries, sports grounds and swimming pools resulting from development”.

    Unfortunately for us, our small scale has rarely made the cut despite ballooning rates and, while big is plainly failing, the agility to come up with solutions – our strong suit – will need a far more precise improvement than giving the parent body a licence to tax us on a de facto user pays basis.  

    We’re already seeing an element of further revenues in the council officers’ language – over an Artworks redevelopment proposal, over levies to ‘fix’ septic tanks (though it’s been the council itself that has been punitively inept about finding newer technology these last 30 years) and in the rush to secure the regional fuel tax.

    During this smoke and mirrors adjustment, it’s useful to note that the Auckland Council’s own Draft Auckland Plan 2050 also commits the council to “supporting and working with communities to develop local leadership and the resilience to thrive in a changing world”.  

    “A community that is empowered is one that has the ability to influence decisions, take action and bring about change,” it says. 

    “This involvement in decision-making is an integral part of creating strong, sustainable and cohesive communities. Local leadership requires a more locally-centric approach. Local ways of doing things and developing local solutions better address communities’ diverse needs. 

    Unfortunately, the document mentions Waiheke only once (in relation to tourism on page 149) and we may have to bang the drum for this sort of change a while longer if we are to generate the sophisticated, nuanced economic strategy we need as an island with a median household income of $51,000 a year (across the city it’s $76,500) and a high number of empty holiday homes.

    The former Auckland Regional Council was extinguished in Hide’s Auckland supercity plans and Councillor Mike Lee, its last chairman, says the new legislation is welcome. “Too often development costs are externalised onto the long suffering public.” However, he says, the government needs to also take a long hard look at the way local government – Auckland Council and Auckland Transport – are managing the income stream they already collect. • Liz Waters

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