Len Brown: Super City transition a juggling act

Up until now there has been a vast range of fees for standard dog licences across Auckland. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Up until now there has been a vast range of fees for standard dog licences across Auckland. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Factoring in the different regimens from previous councils involves trade-offs.

The birth of the Auckland Super City seems to have gone smoothly enough. The eight old councils have been abolished and replaced with a single mayor, council and local boards, which are all going about their business.

Appearances can be deceptive, however, and residents are beginning to see the impact of the transition. Recent debates over issues such as rates, dog licence fees, and proposed rubbish and recycling systems are a few examples of where the new Auckland Council must merge different inherited approaches.

Much of it stems from the government requirement for the new council to introduce a single, uniform system of charges. Merging the previous councils' different systems as required by law means there are winners and losers.

Take dogs. Across Auckland, there was a vast range of fees for standard dog licences. Rodney Hide decreed that in the transition, all dog fees would revert to one of the lowest levels being paid in the region.

That has created a major challenge for Auckland Council. The cost of dog control services (managing dog pounds, education campaigns, meeting the legal requirements placed on councils by Parliament and paying the salaries of the dog control officers) is $12.3 million. We propose recouping $9.8 million from dog licences. Eighty per cent would be paid for by dog owners, 20 per cent by ratepayers. The council is looking at that balance and what benefits good dog owners should receive.

In determining how much of the overall cost should be carried by ratepayers in general, and how much directly by dog owners, we must ask who benefits from the council's dog management services. Is there a "public good" and should the community in general shoulder the burden, or do dog owners derive most of the benefits and therefore should bear most of the costs?

It is this sort of trade-off that we have to consider across every council charge - what portion should be borne by the wider community and what portion should be paid by those who directly benefit or who cause the cost. The greater the "public good", the more that service will be charged from general rates. The greater the private benefit, the more individuals should pay.

Introducing a single rubbish and recycling collection system is another complex area. We have to factor in the different regimens from the previous councils, develop a new single system, and make progress towards the goal of reducing waste going to landfills, as we are required to do.

Should all households pay the same amount for the waste which is collected? Or should there be an element of charge based on how much waste a household produces? Introducing an element of direct fees would introduce a financial incentive to reduce waste, meaning the careful household which minimises waste gets some benefit from that. Wasteful households would pay more.

The transition to a single rating structure is the biggest challenge.

For 150 years, the various parts of the Auckland region set their own rates and charges for water and wastewater, with widely differing systems and requirements. While the new Auckland Council has kept the annual rate increase to 3.6 per cent (down from the 9 per cent increase proposed after amalgamation), the legal obligation placed on us to shift to a single rating system means 190,000 properties are facing increases of more than 10 per cent.

Some people argue that increasing the uniform annual general charge - currently set at $350 per year - would reduce the impact of the transition. In fact, if we raised the charge to $750, a further 40,000 properties would face annual rate increases of more than 10 per cent.

Every councillor is concerned at the sudden imposition of such large increases caused by decisions beyond our control. That is why we have asked the Government to tweak the Auckland Council legislation on the rating transition, allowing businesses and residents who face very large increases as a result of the amalgamation to have their increase capped or phased in over three years.

Our proposed change means that more than 185,000 residential property owners would receive a rates reduction of up to 10 per cent. If we cannot change to a capped system, a similar number of people would face increases of more than 10 per cent in the first year - and that's not fair.

It is the same with businesses. Around 11,400 will receive a decrease in the first year under the council's proposed policy. But if the legislation is not changed, more than 5400 extra businesses face rate increases of more than 10 per cent.

We have been able to achieve savings and efficiencies under the amalgamated council, and we will continue to work hard on your behalf to achieve savings. Long-term, a single council will deliver efficiencies and simpler decision-making for the region. What is clear, though, is that the Government's amalgamation was always going to impose short-term transition costs on Auckland and the way the rates were distributed around the region would change significantly.

This needs to be considered alongside providing infrastructure and services in light of further proposed changes to local government announced this week. However, it is important to remember that the vast majority of council spending in Auckland goes toward building infrastructure to cater for the region's growth - and we are interested in your thoughts how best to do that.

We have choices in how we merge the different systems, and how we share the burden of new single charges. The council's draft long-term plan is open for consultation until 4pm Friday 23 March. We need your input to help us make decisions. Please have your say.

- NZ Herald

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