After a year of debating to figure out how Auckland Council can financially balance its books, the mayor's 10-year budget proposal will be that a 5 per cent rates increase is required, public assets sold, council debt levels increased, and savings made by cutting or reducing council services.
The budget proposes to increase taxes, borrow more and spend more.
What has frustrated me the most as a councillor has been many repeated attempts to have council define "core business" to allow the debate to focus on trimming back on non-core services.
By way of example, Aucklanders' rates are being used to pay for yoga classes, daycare centres, camping grounds, marinas, golf courses and a host of other services which should be being run by private enterprises. They are not core council business. They should not be ratepayer funded.
The mayor and some of my councillor colleagues have disagreed with me. Their argument has been that local body legislation requires councils to promote social, economic, environmental and cultural outcomes for all Aucklanders.
However, Auckland Council cannot afford to be all things to all people. In what has been an unprecedented tough year, the council needs to peel back services to prioritise the essentials and to make the tough calls about what services are nice-to-haves.
This action alone would negate the need for increasing debt, selling public assets or ramping up rates.
When the eight legacy councils were amalgamated into the Super City 10 years ago, with the promise of requiring fewer staff and having greater efficiencies, a crucial step was overlooked, which needs to be corrected.
Each of the different councils offered an array of different services but no filter was applied to determine whether all of the services were appropriate to be provided by the newly formed Auckland Council. A cutting back to provide core services in a cost-efficient way never happened, so the staff costs of providing all the services have remained entrenched.
The chickens have now well and truly come home to roost with Auckland Council having experienced a significant downturn in revenue due to Covid-19, primarily from its reduction in payouts from Auckland Airport and the Ports of Auckland. Accordingly, the council must urgently reduce its spending to balance the books. The question is, will the correct spending cuts be made?
Because the council has failed to seize the opportunity to debate and openly re-examine its primary purpose at a time of experiencing extreme financial hardship, Auckland's residents and ratepayers will be hit hard with loss of public amenities, more debt, cut services and more taxes.
It is disheartening that the numerous requests to examine what council core business should be were repeatedly dismissed. The chance was squandered for Auckland's elected leaders to show strong enough leadership and to truly reform Auckland Council into how it should have been operating from the day of its original amalgamation.
In order to maintain routine services the mayor is proposing an average general rates increase of 5 per cent for this year, up from the 3.5 per cent he previously promised. Echoing his concerns, two local boards, Rodney and Waitematā, have proposed even higher rate increases of between 8 per cent and 12 per cent.
These increases seem counter-intuitive when the economy is in recovery mode and households are struggling.
What is required is for the mayor's current self-sponsored internal cost-saving working parties to be replaced by a "razor squad" of competent external people who have no allegiance to Auckland Council. They should be given the authority to go through all council operations and cut 10 per cent of unnecessary spending. This rules out elected officials, staff and any current or past consultants being part of such an exercise.
Instead, what is likely to happen is core services that communities truly value will be cut while non-core services will continue unchallenged.
This will be a red rag for many ratepayers who don't want to be continually taxed to prop up increasing council debt and spending. What they want is significant change in the way Auckland is run.
Auckland Council received $129 million from the regional fuel tax but only spent $89 million in the first year of collections on fixing traffic congestion – a core service.
Last year, Auckland Council received $148m and spent even less at $79m. So what's happened to the unspent $109 million?
Ratepayers may be shocked to learn the council can, in turn, use the unspent transport money on its own daily operational expenses or for financing its ballooning debt.
I cannot emphasise enough the need for us all to keep a close eye on council's books.
• Greg Sayers is an Auckland Councillor for the Rodney ward.