With Auckland councillors searching the city vaults looking for a long-forgotten hoard of gold bars to fund their "visions", it was only a matter of time before someone zeroed in on the $2 billion Auckland Energy Consumer Trust.
Former Auckland City mayor and councillor Christine Fletcher was first to circle this honey pot, referring to the AECT as "a perfect example of where there has been a dogged unwillingness to engage in rationalisation".
She was swiftly slapped down by one of her former Auckland City Citrat colleagues, William Cairns, who, as trust chairman, said the Auckland Council had no "right or interest in the trust assets". At this, Doug Armstrong, one-time Auckland City finance committee chairman, whipped his hand out and proposed the trust be wound up, and he and the 316,000 other beneficiaries split the windfall between them at $6000 apiece.
All heart, he said that "perhaps" the Auckland Council could have a "minor contribution".
There's no denying a surprise unearned $6000 handout is tempting. But as I've argued before, it really isn't mine, or Mr Armstrong's, to take. By law, we're caretakers and temporary beneficiaries of this community-owned asset until 2073, at which time the assets are to be redistributed to the three territorial councils serviced by the old Auckland Electric Power Board - Auckland City, Manukau City and the Papakura District Council.
If there's to be "rationalisation", it should be to close down the trust, sack the five trustees who together pocket $343,000 in fees, and 59 years early transfer ownership of the 75 per cent of Vector shares it still owns to the Auckland Council as the successor to the legacy councils. Then, instead of splitting the annual dividend, which this year totalled $105 million, between 316,000 individual homes and businesses at a flat $335 apiece, use the cash to benefit the community as a whole on new infrastructure such as a rail tunnel, repairs to the St James Theatre, or new regional park purchases.
It's not as though we recipients have earned any right to an annual dividend. The Vector assets were built up by a co-operative power company, set up by far-sighted Aucklanders a century ago to distribute electricity throughout the city. In the energy "reforms" of the 1980s-1990s, such community-owned co-operatives were anathema to central government and had to go.
But in 1993, the old AEPB customers dug in their heels and refused to be bribed by the offer of a few hundred dollars' worth of shares in a new power company. Instead of agreeing to the privatisation, a majority honoured the intent of the board founders and voted to retain public ownership of this community asset.
As a result, the shares went into trust ownership, Parliament in its wisdom deciding an annual "dividend" would go to each customer address until 2073, at which stage ownership would pass to, in effect, the Auckland Council. Incidentally, consumers in the West and North Shore went for instant gratification instead, accepting a one-off parcel of shares in their power company, which most have long since cashed in.
To reflect this, it might be possible once the Vector dividends are paid to the Auckland Council to target the spending within the historic boundaries of the old power board, but to me that's rather petty. After 20 years, many, perhaps a majority, of those who collected their $335 dividend a few weeks ago were not even customer/owners of the power board when the "privatisation" occurred. As it happens, I was, but in this city of migrants, tens of thousands will have no real claim to the money, let alone any idea why they're receiving it.
Even the dividend is arbitrary. Whether you run a multi-storey hotel or own a tiny studio apartment, the handout is identical. Since 2001 anyway. Before that, the dividend pot was divided roughly two ways between 236,000 residents who got equal shares of their half, and 33,000 business customers who split their share of the dividend according to use.
It shows how political this all is - and ripe for rationalisation.
Sure, I'd miss my annual windfall. But the pioneers who set up the community power board, and the generations who steadily built it up didn't do it to create a money-tree for individuals, generations down the line. They were civic-minded, and I'm sure would have wanted any future profits invested back into the community.