Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Super City elections 2013: The front runners - Len Brown

Incumbent cruising to a second term, which will most likely set him on a path to greatness or a path to failure

'It is time to hold firm and continue to power up Auckland.' Photo / Herald on Sunday
'It is time to hold firm and continue to power up Auckland.' Photo / Herald on Sunday

Len Brown appears to be cruising to a second term as mayor of the Super City - a term that will most likely set him on a path to greatness or a path to failure.

Brown says Auckland is a work in progress and now is not the time to deviate from the current path.

"We have got the plan, got the direction and central government is behind us. It is time to hold firm and continue to power Auckland up," Brown told supporters at his campaign launch.

The 56-year-old former mayor of Manukau has achieved the mammoth task of uniting Aucklanders under the new, untested Super City structure, set out a clear and bold vision and achieved what few would have believed - support from the National Government for the City Rail Link, the centrepiece of his vision.

He has got the Auckland Plan - a 30-year blueprint for the city - in place and had a rocky ride to get the planning rulebook - or Unitary Plan - across the line for formal notification.

These are important steps, but Brown and his council know they are merely tools to build the "world's most liveable city". It's time to start building, starting with the $2.86 billion rail link in 2016.

The mayor, however, is playing a game of cat and mouse with voters about how he will fund the largest public transport project in New Zealand history.

In February last year, Brown told the Herald that by the time of the local elections, Aucklanders would be under no apprehension about his preference for funding options for the rail link and other transport projects.

He has failed to keep this pledge, despite a mayoral advisory group coming up with the options of rates rises, a fuel tax and tolls on new roads, and tolls of existing roads.

Brown's latest promise is to present a funding proposal for the council's half share of the bill to the Government by the end of the year for construction to begin in 2016.

This dilly-dallying highlights an Achilles heel for Brown, which has been his management of the council finances and growing concern among Aucklanders at rising rates and soaring debt.

Debt under Brown has increased from $3.9 billion to $6.7 billion - much of it going on "bits and bobs", in the words of councillor Cameron Brewer.

On top of that, the wages bill has blown out under Brown's leadership from a projected figure of $513 million in 2012 to $655 million.

This year's bill is $702 million, which includes $100,000-plus salaries for 1500 staff.

Brown has found efficiency savings of $145 million a year, but when you stop mowing berms in the old Auckland City area, it sends a message that services are being cut, not improved under the new regime. Nor have the savings filtered down to universal free swimming pools that Brown wanted. Instead, he achieved free pools for the under-16s.

Rates are another issue that has hounded Brown, albeit unfairly at times given it was the Government that set the rules for introducing a single rating system for the Super City - and came to his rescue to cap maximum increases at 10 per cent for three years.

The biggest criticism/applause that can be levelled at Brown is the decision to set the fixed general charge for all properties at $350, which has unfairly hit high-value properties and benefited low-value properties. That's what you get from a left-leaning mayor. He has not ruled out raising the charge.

The big financial issues - and greater oversight of the council-controlled organisations (CCOs) - will test the mettle of Brown, who has shown a deft pragmatic streak and canny ability to get the numbers around the council table on most issues.

However, nothing will count as much as securing the City Rail Loop, which a Research New Zealand survey in June last year found 63 per cent support for against 29 per cent opposition.

Brown is again seeking a strong mandate from Auckland to carry his voice and vision. His biggest threat is not John Palino, but complacency and a low voter turnout weakening his grip. The other danger is a more right-leaning council applying the brakes on the direction he has set Auckland.

For the record

Age: 56.
Married to: Shan, with three children.
Political career: Manukau City councillor 1992-2004. Ran for Manukau mayoralty in 2004, losing by 600 votes to Sir Barry Curtis. Elected mayor in 2007. Beat John Banks to be elected first mayor of Super City in 2010.
Professional background: Studied law at Auckland University. Joined Auckland law firm of Wynyard Wood, where he became a partner. Chaired Counties Manukau Health Council. Founder and co-ordinator of the Howick Free Legal Service and co-founder of the Greenmount East Tamaki Business Association.
Interests: Gardening, singing, reading.

Record this term

Rate rises:
2011: 3.94%.
2012: 3.4%*.
2013: 2.9%*.
*Move to a single rating system meant rates were bigger or smaller than these figures for most ratepayers
Debt: Increased from $3.9 billion to $6.7 billion.
High points: Successfully united Aucklanders under the Super City, gained Government support for the City Rail Link, introduction of a single rating system went relatively smoothly.
Low points: Rugby World Cup opening-night fiasco, upset traditional supporters over ports dispute and SkyCity pokies-for-convention-centre deal, back peddled on Unitary Plan measures.

- NZ Herald

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