Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Trust's PR trick flies in face of tact

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Hiring expensive consultancy and opinion pollsters funny way to press case for more council funding.

The Auckland rescue helicopter. Photo / APN
The Auckland rescue helicopter. Photo / APN

The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust has an odd way of trying to persuade Auckland Council that it's down to its last can of aviation fuel.

Instead of fronting up with the old begging bowl, it's retained the services of expensive PR consultancy Wright Communications and opinion pollsters Phoenix Research to assist in-house PR veteran Michelle Boag to do their pleading.

While the fly boys claim they're not trying to squeeze out more cash at the expense of the other nine beneficiaries of the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding pot, the helicopter trust goes out of its way in a press release to do just that, claiming its survey reveals Aucklanders reckon it's much more deserving than the others.

As though you can compare the merits of a mercy dash from Waiheke Island with a stage show or a new exhibition at the maritime museum in such a way.

It's a tactic which, not surprisingly, hasn't gone down well with the other amenities. A smarter move would have been to highlight the surprise result of the poll - that 48.1 per cent of Aucklanders support a doubling of the proposed $14,096,000 grant to the 10 amenities for 2013-2014. And another 24 per cent agree to a more modest, but still stunning, increase of 50 per cent.

It made me proud to be an Aucklander that most of my fellow citizens regard the current 1 per cent of rates allotted to the 10 amenities - Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Westpac Rescue Helicopter, Auckland Festival and Surf Life Saving Northern Region among them - as too niggardly and needing to be substantially increased.

The helicopter trust is now trying to drum up write-in support via its website. What struck me when I visited it was the absence of any gratitude towards its main benefactor - you and me - for the $5.1 million we've forked out to it over the past four years.

Chief executive Bob Parkinson acknowledged in the Herald last week that 27 per cent of its operating expenses came from the ratepayer grant, but you wouldn't know it from its website.

On its "sponsors" page it declares "our sponsors are the vital life-blood of our organisation" and lists various big commercial backers.

Of Auckland ratepayers there's not a word. Until now, that is, where there's a red-lettered plea for help to save "our ratepayer funding".

What Ms Boag and her fellow trustees and advisers don't seem to appreciate is that as a result of the 2008 Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Act, the politicians they're trying to persuade with their lobbying no longer have any say on how the funds are split up. The bluster is wasted effort. The act was passed after a long and bitter effort to create a population-based funding formula for 10 key Auckland amenities, both cultural and rescue.

Parliamentarians united to introduce an equitable funding regime which would force politicians from across the region - particularly those outside the old Auckland City Council - to contribute a fair share to the cost of these regionwide assets.

Funding rules were established and a system to appoint independent board members. Auckland Council appoints six, including one Maori, and the amenities four between them. The board receives submissions and draws up a funding model, which is then subject to further submissions. This is where the process is at.

The board then makes a final adjudication and submits its decision to Auckland Council. Councillors cannot litigate the details, only agree or refuse to accept the final overall total - which for the coming year is $14,096,000. In an impasse, an outside adjudicator decides.

In its draft funding plan for the coming year, the board acknowledges the proposed $900,000 grant to the helicopter trust is $300,000 less than its current allocation. This reduction "reflects the intention of the legislation as the trust has demonstrated the ability to access alternative funding to support its activities".

The board congratulated the trust on its "excellent and sustainable business model", which means it doesn't need as much ratepayer funding as in the past.

Thanks to the law, this is a decision which can no longer be decided by the depth of your political lobbying budget - or the politicians you know.

If the helicopters do run short of fuel, the trustees could always dip into the $110,000 piggy bank that holds their directors' fees, a luxury no directors of other amenities enjoy.

- NZ Herald

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