Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Robbing Peter's parks to pay Paul

Regional parks' funds are being used elsewhere. Photo / Supplied
Regional parks' funds are being used elsewhere. Photo / Supplied

Auckland Council parks bosses would be wise to don their flak jackets when they front up to tomorrow's meeting of the Parks, Recreation and Heritage Forum.

They're proposing to siphon off money being squirrelled away to fund future regional parks to plug a blowout in the local parks budget, and forum chair Sandra Coney is not amused.

To her, filching from the regional park piggy bank is a betrayal of a proud tradition going back a century or more, of one generation of Aucklanders buying up precious green spaces on the city's fringes as a legacy to hand on to those still to be born.

The problem facing the council is that in drawing up the Long Term Plan, the political need to keep the rates down seems to have overridden the awkward truth that some of the old councils, including Mayor Len Brown's old stamping ground of Manukau, signed up to acquire land for local parks over the next few years, but failed to make adequate provisions to pay for them.

The chickens are now starting to fly home, and come the 2013/14 financial year, Auckland Council needs to find an extra $1.9 million to cover the shortfall in funds needed to cover the cost of committed open space acquisitions.

On top of that, there's another $5.2 million of open space that the old councils "approved" for purchase, but didn't actually commit to.

Parks officials have spotted the $5.1 million sitting in the regional parks acquisition account, and are proposing it be raided to cover the shortfall. However, next year's lack of funds is nothing compared with the crisis looming in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 years, where there's a combined shortfall in budgeted funds for already approved acquisitions of $37 million. Not even the combined $10 million budgeted for regional parks acquisitions over those two years is enough to solve that shortfall. Instead, officers are recommending the "provision of additional funding through the 14/15 Annual Plan process and the 15/16 LTP review" to sort that problem out.

In the Long Term Plan, the special allocation for regional park land purchases disappears in the 2016/17 financial year. Instead, all land acquisition for parks large and small, urban and "regional" comes under the budgetary line "Reserve open space strategy land acquisition". The good news is that the sums listed are, at $60 million or more a year, more than three times this year's total acquisition budget of around $17 million.

However, Ms Coney, formerly chair of the old regional council's parks committee, remains suspicious, preferring to keep the regional parks and their 100-year tradition distinct.

Highlighting the dilemma is an item on the confidential part of tomorrow's agenda, listed as "proposal to acquire land on the northeast coast for regional parkland". If funds being quietly set aside for future additions to the regional park network are raided each time there's a cash crisis elsewhere in the system, what guarantee is there for acquiring the northeast coastal property, or any other ecological jewel that pops up in five or 10 years' time?

With the "multimillion-dollar shortfall", Ms Coney fears "there will be no regional parks purchases, if they had their way, for a number of years. They want to treat regional parks just like a local park".

She's upset that the Long Term Plan went through the public consultation process with separate funding allocated to regional parks, but now the LTP has been approved, the rules are changed.

She fears the acquisition plan carried over from the ARC will be ruined if the funds are raided.

"There are properties that have been under consideration for the last couple of years. I was waiting until the money came available in the next financial year to proceed, but now the money is being looked at to make up the shortfall created by other commitments that weren't budgeted for by the ex-city and district councils."

Meanwhile, further to last week's column about Auckland Transport, chairman Mark Ford formally resigns at the September 19 meeting to take over the chair at Solid Energy. However, incoming AT chairman Lester Levy has turned down the offer to start immediately, and is sticking to the agreed November 1 hand-over date. In the interregnum, deputy chair Philippa Dunphy has six weeks to get the trains and buses running on time.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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