Selling a parking building is better than neglecting a park

If the Auckland Council had any doubt about the reception that would greet its new 10-year budget, it had only to refer to last year's decision to stop cutting berms. The resentful reaction to that will be echoed many times over because of the breadth of the proposed cuts in the "black budget". Many among the critics will, however, also be among the first to complain if rates increases are not kept to what they consider reasonable levels. The key factor in assessing the savings of $486 million a year required to hold rates at 2.5 per cent is not, therefore, their necessity but whether they are as well-targeted as possible.

The end of the post-Super City spending spree and the new era of "affordability" have prompted a wide array of measures. Objections are easy to make. How do reduced library hours help create a more educated populace? How will reduced mowing of parks and frequency of street cleaning sponsor a tidy environment? Likewise, the ending of inorganic rubbish collections. How will cutting or deferring public transport and road projects help ease congestion? How will fewer arts and culture festivals and events make the city more liveable and bind the community together? How will closing swimming pools help the fight against obesity? How will charging for recycling services encourage people to reduce waste?

The cutbacks are targeted insofar as they affect only what are sometimes called non-core council activities. Undisturbed will be core activities related to services to rated properties the likes of drainage, water, waste disposal and roads.

Things such as libraries, parks, swimming pools and arts and culture are add-ons to that. As worthy as they are, councils can provide only as much of them as they think necessary or affordable. With the decision not to cut the $2.86 billion city rail link in any way, something must give.


But to what extent? Usually, ratepayers are happy to pay for the add-ons. They recognise that running a city is about more than stark spending statistics.

As Auckland becomes more and more diverse and its natural community of interest diminishes, the council provides much of the glue that binds it together. Ratepayers will wonder, therefore, if the cost-cutting could be done in a manner that does not impinge so much on these functions. One obvious port of call is the council's involvement in areas of commercial risk that could better be left to private enterprise.

The budget refers to the raising of $30 million from the sale of unspecified underperforming assets. The sale of further assets could help the council avoid cutbacks particularly resented by the public.

Apparently ripe for disposal are the council's inner-city carparking buildings. Only in one arguable instance, that of the Downtown carpark, which may be integral to the council's plans for the port area, does the ownership seem essential. Auckland already has competition between the operators of other carpark buildings. There seems little reason why the Civic, Victoria St and Fanshawe St buildings should not be sold. That is certainly preferable to, say, parks becoming overgrown and untidy or inorganic rubbish collections ending.

Other responses should also be pursued. As well as the budget's mention of reduced planning, policy, research and monitoring functions, efforts should be made to minimise staff and enhance efficiencies in other areas. The driving of hard bargains with suppliers should also be a priority.

There should be more evidence of such responses when the first draft of the budget is released on August 28.