Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Rescue service fights cuts

Helicopters trust's court action over slashed grant will leave ratepayers with big legal bill.

Auckland ratepayers are up for a $500,000 legal bill to defend a court case brought by the city's Westpac rescue helicopter service.

The Auckland Regional Rescue Helicopter Trust is challenging plans by a council-funded body to slash its grant by $750,000 over two years.

The council and the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board are standing firm, saying the helicopter service has been incredibly successful at fundraising, is in an "exceptionally sound financial position" and services have not suffered as a result of the cuts.

Funding board chairman Vern Walsh yesterday acknowledged the case was a "huge waste of ratepayers' money" and would prefer it if the money was allocated among 10 regional amenities, including four arts organisations, northern region coastguard and surf life saving, Watersafe Auckland, Stardome, Maritime Museum and the helicopter service.

The amenities funding board, which distributes about $14 million a year of ratepayers' money, has run up $174,000 in legal costs. Yesterday, the council's finance and performance committee gave the nod to spend $400,000 on lawyers, including a Queen's Counsel, who typically charge about $1000 an hour.

The council is using in-house legal resources as much as possible, but still expects to spend about $100,000 on lawyers in the case, which starts in the High Court at Auckland on March 3.

Waitakere councillor Linda Cooper said it was sad having to spend so much money but the fund was not set up to create dependency.

Council officer Alastair Cameron said the helicopter trust was incredibly successful at fundraising. It had gone from having equity of about $1.7 million in 2009 to $13.6 million in 2013 to buy new helicopters.

He said the helicopter trust indicated service levels would be affected by last year's funding cut, but there was no evidence of that. This year, they sought $1.35 million to maintain levels of service, but the funding board believed $450,000 was appropriate.

Last night, helicopter trust chairman Murray Bolton said it had no option but to take the matter to court.

"We are not going to lie down," said Mr Bolton, who said the trust was up for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs.

Mr Bolton said it was incorrect to say the funding cuts had not affected services. The trust's second helicopter was going to run 24/7 over summer but was reduced to 12/7 because of a funding shortage.

The board has a budget this year of $14 million to allocate among the 10 amenities, of which eight are in line for an increase. It is proposed that New Zealand Opera's grant will stay the same.

Last year, the board cut the helicopter trust's grant from $1.2 million to $900,000. This year it is proposing to cut the grant from $900,000 to $450,000 - a total cut of $750,000 over two years.

Funding Row

Who gets what this year*

•Auckland Arts Festival: $2.305 million, up $75,000 on last year

•Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra: $2.942 million, up $125,000

•Auckland Regional Rescue Helicopter: $450,000, down $450,000

•Auckland Theatre Company: $1.415 million, up $85,000

•Coastguard Northern Region: $670,000, up $20,000

•New Zealand Opera: $800,000, no change

•Stardome Observatory and Planetarium: $1.269m, up $150,000

•Surf Life Saving Northern Region: $1.2 million, up $60,000

•Voyager Maritime Museum: $1.975 million, up $100,000

•Watersafe Auckland: $970,000, up $50,000

Unfolding events

•Funding board cuts helicopter grant from $1.2 million to $900,000 last year

•Board plans to cut budget from $900,000 to $450,000 this year

•Helicopter Trust seeking judicial review

•Funding board budgeting $400,000 on lawyers

•Auckland Council budgeting $100,000 on lawyers

•Case goes to court on March 3

* These are funding proposals at this
stage. Council approves or rejects
proposals on March 27.

- NZ Herald

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