The 10-year budget the Mayor Phil Goff will probably get passed by the Auckland Council today invites easy criticism. It fulfils his 2016 election promise to keep annual rate rises to no more than 2.5 per cent. But on top of that there will be a new dedicated rate for upgrading the city's drains, another for environmental problems such as kauri dieback and the regional petrol tax for scheduled transport projects.
It is the total bill that matters to ratepayers and the mayor will not expect much praise for keeping the letter of his promise rather than the spirit.
The stated purposes of the additional levies are not outside the normal range of council responsibilities that citizens expect their general rate to cover. It is reasonable to expect the council to meet these responsibilities by finding ways to operate more efficiently within its general revenue. If after ratepayers have seen such an exercise, the city is still unable to do everything they require, a rates increase becomes more palatable.
Nevertheless, there is much to be said for dedicated, or "targeted", rates. They can be tied to specific projects, giving ratepayers greater confidence that they will gain something of value from their additional outlay, and they can expire once they have covered the project's cost. But the additional rates Goff is putting before the council today are not well targeted to specific projects.
The fuel tax, for example, would be more palatable if it were to be tied to the cost of the central rail link now under construction. But the tax turns out to be dedicated to almost everything but that project, for which the council may still need to find a source of finance for its contribution.
The levy Aucklanders will soon be paying at petrol pumps has no fewer than 14 "targets", few of them being a specific construction. It is to be allocated for such things as "bus priority improvements", "improving airport access", "park and rides", "road safety", "active transport".
Under each heading some projects are specified but it is not these that will limit the life or the purpose of the tax. Most of its stated purposes are sufficiently broad to cover any number of future projects the council might decide to do. The levy on petrol looks purposely designed to become a permanent source of council finance, unlike the "interim transport levy" it replaces.
The additional rate proposed for "water quality" appears to be more precisely targeted to the problem of beach water contamination after heavy rain. It will provide $452 million to enable to reduce wastewater overflows within 10 years rather than the 30 years scheduled by Watercare Services under loans raised against water charges. Most Aucklanders might gladly pay an extra $66 a year for our beaches to be free of the health warnings that blighted them last summer but ominously the project does not promise to fix the problem, only "reduce" it.
Money alone does not fix anything, or course. It has to be used effectively. One of the best ways to see that it is used effectively it to earmark it for clearly defined work that can be seen to happen and its results measured. That is the test the mayor's budget should have to pass.