Wayne Thompson

Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Copter trust eyes court fight on cuts

Rescue service vows to keep battling to get back $300,000 chopped from grant

Auckland Council funding for the Westpac rescue helicopter service has been slashed to $900,000. Photo / Anna Leask
Auckland Council funding for the Westpac rescue helicopter service has been slashed to $900,000. Photo / Anna Leask

Auckland's Westpac rescue helicopter service is considering asking a court to reinstate a $300,000 cut in its 2013-14 operating grant from the Auckland Council.

The cut has forced the service to scrap a plan to boost operation of its second helicopter from 12 hours seven days a week to 16 hours - while retaining the other machine on a 24/7 basis.

Three years ago, when it had one helicopter, the service received $1.5 million from the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board, but this has been slashed to $900,000 for a two-helicopter service.

Despite the pleas of the rescue helicopter trust, leaders of the Hauraki Gulf Islands and the region's rural areas, the council confirmed on Thursday the funding board's 2013-14 budget of $14 million to allocate among 10 amenities.

Council strategy and finance committee chairwoman Penny Webster said legislation allowed the council to approve or reject the board's total levy on ratepayers.

It had the option of going to arbitration over the total but the board had responded to the spirit of the council's wish to spare ratepayers no more than a 2.5 per cent rise.

Mrs Webster said the council accepted the total levy on the board's assurance that the rescue service's ability to deliver current levels of service would not be adversely affected by the 25 per cent funding cut.

The board's response was: "The trust has advised that they will continue to deliver current levels of service unless they are unable to raise the additional funds from the public.

"Trust members have also assured the funding board that no 111 calls would go unanswered."

Board chairman Vern Walsh said the board was confident the trust had enough money to maintain service levels.

But trust chairman Murray Bolton said last night that the trust was extremely disappointed by the council endorsement of the funding cut. It believed the allocation did not provide sustainable and secure funding as required by the legislation.

"It forces the service to rely more on donations to maintain current service levels. We have consistently said that if we cannot raise the additional $300,000, there will be service cuts.

"The board has chosen to ignore that,, erroneously stating we had assured them cuts would not occur."

Mr Bolton said the trust would keep fighting.

"We are considering all options to secure the necessary funding, including the possibility of a legal challenge to the funding board's decision."

He ruled out the service charging any patient for its services.

"If it's an accident, the service is paid by ACC; if it's a medical condition, it's paid for by the Ministry of Health."

About half of the service's operating costs comes from government departments and this year the trust had hoped for 27 per cent from the funding board and to raise the rest from donations.

"We are always trying to get more money from ACC and Westpac ... Any time we do something new, like the Rescue I series, we try to squeeze more money out of Westpac.

"But we are under contract and let's not forget that they support other rescue services around the country."

Mr Bolton said the board was penalising the trust for working hard to keep a sound financial position and raise money from other sources.

- NZ Herald

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