Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Big cuts loom in bid to keep cap on rates rise

Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Doug Sherring
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Doug Sherring

Cutting back funding for park maintenance, reducing library hours and scrapping inorganic rubbish collections are among options being considered by a cash-strapped Auckland Council.

Its finances have reached crisis point where severe cuts are necessary in a black budget to put rates and debt back on an "affordable" and "sustainable" path. But families fear the proposals will leave the city's youngsters worse off.

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To rescue finances, slashing up to $2.8 billion of new spending is required, as well as stripping up to $486 million a year for each of the next 10 years.

The first overview of the new 10-year budget discussed by Mayor Len Brown, councillors and decision makers yesterday included the $2.86 billion City Rail Link, which has an enormous flow-on effect.

The mammoth rail project dominates the transport budget, where other public transport initiatives like rail electrification to Pukekohe, rail to the airport, a cycling network, bus improvements and the North Western busway are candidates for reduced funding or the chop.

Roading projects that may not happen include the Penlink road from Whangaparaoa to East Coast Bays and upgrading Lake Rd between Takapuna and Devonport.

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The transport capital budget could be cut by $1 billion over the next four years to $2.3 billion.

The Automobile Association's Auckland Transport adviser Barney Irvine said "something had to give".

"We've been looking at a situation where on one hand we've got this ambitious programme but on the other hand we've got this constrained funding envelope."

The council has also identified parks and community services for cuts of up to $60 million a year with talk of closing "under utilised" halls, recreation centres and swimming pools. Fewer arts and culture festivals and events are under consideration.

The proposed cuts are on a scale never witnessed in Auckland before, and are certainly bigger than those of Auckland City Mayor John Banks' razor gang of 2001, headed by former Finance Minister Sir William Birch.


Photo / Doug Sherring

An Auckland mother-of-three said scaling back on maintenance in city parks and open areas would be "devastating".

Her children, aged 13, 10, and 9, used Cornwall Park "an awful lot", she said yesterday.

"I think we're incredibly lucky to have so many open areas within the city centre. I am from the UK and this sort of thing just doesn't exist.

"It would be devastating to lose a lot of open space we've got in the city right now, particularly as the children get older -- it's great to have access to things like skate parks. I think they're really important for teenagers -- and sports halls and swimming pools."

Manurewa mother-of-two Ashlee Munro, 26, agreed, adding well-maintained parks and easily accessible swimming pools were important for families like hers which did not have a backyard.

Mayor Len Brown yesterday talked of having to make "some tough choices" to find the right balance between progress and affordability.

"We don't have a blank cheque to fund Auckland's growth so we need to be clear about the priorities," he said.

Under his first four budgets -- based on the budgets and assumptions of the former councils -- debt soared from $3.9 billion to $7.3 billion and households were hit with cumulative rates increases of up to 38 per cent.

In his first 10-year budget, based on the plans and visions of the Auckland Council, Mr Brown and officers have produced two options; rates increases of 2.5 per cent and $2.8 billion of spending cuts, and rates increases of 3.5 per cent and $2 billion of cuts.

"Aucklanders want progress, especially on affordable housing and transport, but we know there is no appetite for large increases in debt and rates," he said.

It was budgeting for rates increases of 4.9 per cent and delivering rates increases less than this which largely caused the funding crunch confronting the council.

Mr Brown has not ruled out breaking a key election promise to hold rates to no more than 2.5 per cent this term.

The council will hold workshops to consider options in more detail before Mr Brown releases the first draft of the budget on August 28. The final budget will not be passed until next May.

Councillor Cameron Brewer said the mayor had always promised everything was under control, "but clearly the bow wave is about to crash".

"Aucklanders were promised a Super City would be lighter on their back pockets. Sadly for many ratepayers, they're worse off under Len Brown than their old local mayors and councils."


Ashlee Munro and Thompson Cooper regularly go to parks with their children Halo and Reef Munro-Cooper. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Youth lobby group Generation Zero said the City Rail Link should not be cut and was manageable within existing budgets.

Spokesman Luke Christensen said $20 billion was budgeted to be spent on roads over the next 30 years, while only $8.5 billion would be spent on public transport.

This morning, a member of Mr Brown's inner circle, finance and performance committee chairwoman, Penny Webster, refused to back the $2.86 billion city rail link.

Speaking on Radio New Zealand, Mrs Webster, said she was "not committing to anything" when asked if the project would stay.

The rural Rodney ward that Mrs Webster represents is unhappy at the level of council spending going into big city projects like the city rail link, while just $1.5 million a year is spent on sealing 863km of metal roads, 78 per cent of which are in Rodney.

The failure of Mrs Webster, a senior finance figure at council, to publicly back the rail link is a blow to Mr Brown and a sign of the pressure councillors are under to slash up to $2.8 billion of council spending.

Mrs Webster said it was alarmist at this stage to talk of slashing services and projects, including a proposal not to proceed with the Penlink road from Whangaparoa to East Coast Bays.

She said 95 per cent of people in Whangaparoa were prepared to pay a toll for Penlink.

North Shore councillor Geroge Wood told Radio New Zealand the upgrade of Lake Rd from Takapuna to Devonport was in the existing long-term budget but was told yesterday the $51 million project "would probably have to go".

The congested arterial road, which struggles to carry 39,000 vehicles a day through Takapuna, Belmont and Devonport, is planned to be the main transport spine for high-rise intensification under the council's Unitary Plan.

Your views

It is shocking the mayor could even contemplate a huge reduction in services when he is happy to allocate our rates to a large salary increase for himself and substantial increases for his staff.
Come on Mr Mayor, show us what a leader with an avowed passion for our city should do.
Keep salaries at the current rate until we have evidence of real progress and confidence in your office.
Kay Morris

Rates should not be raised to more than 2.5 per cent. Len Brown PROMISED to keep them to this and he should stick to this.
Too many people are struggling as it is and it is unfair to raise them above what the average person can afford. Superannuitants find it hard enough as it is and this is just another burden for many young families with children.
Ellen Daubney

I suggest council could save millions each year by stopping replacing footpaths in the eastern suburbs which in most cases are barely used.
Mile upon mile of footpaths have been replaced with fancy exposed aggregate concrete while the rest of Auckland's footpaths, many with high pedestrian traffic, are a patchwork of new and old concrete and humps and hollows ground down and filled.
John Batley

Cut whatever is required to keep [rates increases] at 2.5 per cent.
Andrew Parkes

The prime focus of the council is to provide core services to the ratepayers. In recent times the council has got involved in too many non-core activities and these should cease (cultural events just to name one).

Let's stop most of Len Brown's pipe dreams. I believe the so-called city rail link will not achieve the desired reduction in traffic because residents within the rail link area are not motorway users in peak times.
Peter Cuff

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