Talk about cruel and unusual. You often read how prisoners in far-off lands have to pay for their food and bedding. But a condemned man being forced to pay for the rope that will hang him?

For that, you have to head west into deepest Waitakere City where the mighty supermarket chains are in the midst of a lengthy battle to crush the local liquor licensing trusts' monopolies.

Not only are the two trusts involved - Portage and Waitakere - required by law to fund any referendum forced on them by their enemies to decide their future, they are also being told to pay the costs for the official scrutiny of the supermarket-inspired petition calling for the poll. The scrutiny is to check that the names calling for a referendum are genuine.

Not surprisingly, the trusts have refused to pay up, thus stalling the whole show.

Earlier this year, supermarket giants Foodstuffs and Progressive began a new chapter in their attempts to break the liquor monopoly out west by starting a petition seeking support for a poll on the issue.

Under the Sale of Liquor Act, it takes a petition signed by 15 per cent of eligible voters in the trust areas - all of Waitakere City, parts of Rodney District and Avondale, Blockhouse Bay and western parts of Mt Albert in Auckland City - to force a poll.

The Waitakere petition was the first to be completed, with some 25,000 signatures, or well over twice the 11,000 or so names required.

By law, the petition was submitted to West Auckland Trust Services (Wats), which jointly runs both trusts. Wats, in turn, notified the Liquor Licensing Authority, which commissioned Independent Election Services to examine the petition.

That's been done but now Dale Ofsoske, who heads IES, is refusing to reveal the results until someone agrees to pay his $15,000 bill. He's not too fussed who coughs up but after hundreds of hours checking the authenticity of all 25,000 signatures, he wants a guarantee he's going to be compensated. And his best bargaining card is to keep secret the success or otherwise of the petition until that happens.

However loud the trust's protests, and however unfair it might seem, things do not look good for the trust's case. Earlier this year, for example, the Gore-based Mataura Licensing Trust funded the scrutineering of an identical petition.

And while the 1990 sale of liquor regulations do not spell it out, both the Liquor Licensing Authority and independent legal advice say it's the trusts' responsibility.

Murray Spearman, the chief executive of Wats, disputes this. He points to regulation 40 concerning the cost of polls which says that "all costs and expenses of, or incidental to the holding of any poll shall be borne by the trust or trusts concerned".

There is no mention of paying for the scrutinising of any petition here, he argues.

Mr Ofsoske and the licensing authority's case is that the petition is "an incidental" to the holding of the ultimate poll and, therefore, a cost to be carried by the trust.

Mr Spearman is also talking of going to court over irregularities in the petition.

Not surprisingly, the supermarkets are a tad grumpy at the stalling, although they haven't come up with an offer to pay Mr Ofsoske's paltry $15,000 bill themselves just yet.

While the impasse continues over the Waitakere petition, the Portage petition is also gathering dust. The supermarkets have submitted that one to the trust for action, but the trust seems to be playing games with it also.

While notifying the Liquor Licensing Authority it has received the second petition, it hasn't officially asked the authority to appoint Mr Ofsoske - or anyone else - to scrutinise it.

The authority says it can't act to appoint a scrutineer until the notification it receives is "official".

The Department of Courts, which represents the licensing authority, refused to comment about any aspect of the stand-off when approached yesterday. Which is not surprising.

One report estimates the West Auckland liquor market as being worth $90 million a year. It's little wonder the supermarkets want to break up this community-owned monopoly and get a slice of the action for themselves.

No surprises, too, that the trusts are fighting back, with every tactic both from within and outside the Marquis of Queensberry's rulebook. Over the past 10 years, the two trusts have given local organisations about $10 million in grants. The trusts employ more than 400 staff at 41 different premises.

If the community monopoly is broken, 30 years of self-help enterprise out west is threatened.

Still, it's too soon to announce the demise of either of the trusts. Earlier this year, the supermarkets ganged up on the Mataura trust. Despite a major campaign by the grocery chains, 71 per cent of voters turned out for the May poll and gave the grocers the thumbs down.