In terms of fundraising, few organisations are in such a favoured position as the Westpac rescue helicopter service. Such is the high profile and obvious value of its work that Aucklanders respond readily and generously whenever money is sought. This degree of public goodwill should never be taken for granted, however. There will always be the strong risk of a backlash when ratepayers learn they can expect a $500,000 legal bill to defend a court case brought by the helicopter service.
That situation has arisen because the Auckland Regional Rescue Helicopter Trust is challenging plans to cut its annual operating grant from ratepayers from $900,000 to $450,000. Both the Auckland Council and the council-funded Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board, which determines the grants allotted to 10 rescue, safety, arts and cultural groups, are standing firm. The helicopter service, they say, has been incredibly successful at fundraising and is in an exceptionally sound financial position. It is ready to stand more on its own two feet.
It may be tempting to see this as the helicopter service being punished for its own success. But the funding board is right to decree that it should receive no more ratepayer money than it needs, and that the totality of the $14 million allocated among the 10 amenities must recognise the need to limit rates increases. Reducing the helicopter service's grant recognises both its sound financial position and its far greater chance of finding other funding than, say, the Auckland Theatre Company or the Maritime Museum.
The helicopter service has chosen to dispute this. It has said that raising money elsewhere is unrealistic. This time last year, it responded to a cut in its grant from the funding board with a public relations campaign. This included a poll of 1004 people that found the helicopter service was the most deserving of the 10 amenities. That was hardly surprising, and, if anything, underlined its ability to raise money elsewhere. Commendably, the council stuck to its guns.
This year, therefore, the helicopter service has upped the ante by seeking a judicial review. Already, the funding board has run up $174,000 in legal costs, and the council's financial and performance committee has sanctioned the spending of $400,000 on lawyers. The funding board chairman, Vern Walsh, has spoken of a "huge waste of ratepayers' money" which, preferably, could have been allocated among the regional amenities. It is hard to disagree. The helicopter service should be proclaiming its reduced dependence on the public purse. Its success leaves more money for those who do not enjoy its fundraising advantages. Instead, it has opted for a legal challenge that hints, at best, of contentment with a dependency on public funding and, at worst, of a sense of entitlement.
Raising more money through corporate and community fundraising may, indeed, be difficult. If so, there are other possibilities. One would be part-charging patients for its services. Accident-related injuries are, of course, paid by the ACC and medical conditions by the Ministry of Health. Nonetheless, it is noticeable that St John considers it worthwhile to impose a part-charge of $84 on activities that are not funded this way. This would have been introduced reluctantly, but as a necessary response to its own funding difficulties.
The council will attract some criticism for backing a cut in the funding of such a well-regarded rescue service. But ratepayer money should go to amenities that would, otherwise, struggle to survive. The presence of a name sponsor, Westpac, underlines the helicopter service's strong appeal. That attractiveness can only be diminished by a legal challenge that will cost the very people who have supported it so well.