The strength of our democratic system and free media is our ability to publicly scrutinise our elected representatives and public servants at a local and central government level on how our rates and taxes are being spent.
Accountability and transparency are the best mechanisms to curb potential corruption, abuse of power and inefficiency.
As councillors, we need to be ready to accept criticism where it is due and make changes where they are needed. However, those making criticisms also need to ensure that their arguments are valid.
Take for example the recently raised argument that Auckland Council staff and pay should be slashed. Auckland's population in just the last five years has gone up by around 125,000, increasing the demand for council services.
In the areas I am responsible for as chair of the Regulatory Committee, building consents, for example, are running at 20,000 a year whereas a decade ago they averaged 5000. The work is complex and intensive and you need skilled and experienced people to process them.
Far from overpaying the staff we train in this area, we find that we are constantly losing staff, poached not only by the private sector but also government, which both offer significantly higher remuneration.
Our staff increases are mostly front-line staff where workloads are increasing.
In other areas, we have worked to employ technology and improve efficiencies to reduce the number of back-office staff, consultants and temps, with the result that last year there was a decrease of 1.4 per cent in overall staff numbers.
Another criticism is that Auckland Council is borrowing too much.
Council has increased its debt as it has vastly increased the building of new infrastructure the city needs such as the City Rail Link, the Eastern Busway and extensions to the hugely successful Northern Busway. We have also vastly increased investment in meeting demands for water resulting from population growth and from more frequent climate change-related droughts.
Those assets cover the needs of future generations and they are properly paid for out of borrowing and paid back over time rather than putting all the cost on the current generation of ratepayers.
As we make up for the past underinvestment in infrastructure as well as building new libraries, pools and parks, the value of Auckland's assets in the last five years has grown from $44 billion to $60 billion.
We maintain a prudent borrowing policy, reflected in the fact that our credit rating is one of the highest in New Zealand of any agency outside of government.
The assets we are investing in are critical to Auckland being a world-class city and ensuring its livability.
When critics talk about reducing borrowing, which projects are they planning to cancel?
Rate increases are also a matter of contention.
The council works really hard to get a balance between what the people of our city need the council to be doing and ensuring that rates remain affordable.
As the largest and fastest-growing city in New Zealand, Auckland's challenges are greater than most. However, despite this, average general rate increases in Auckland have been amongst the lowest in the country in recent years.
From time to time, where there is a specific need — such as separating stormwater from wastewater to stop sewage overflows into our harbours — we have consulted the public over targeted rates. Where we have done so, the public feedback by a ratio of two to one has supported measures such as the Water Quality and Natural Environment targeted rates.
Last but not least, the council has worked hard over the last five years in a systematic implementation of value-for-money exercises.
Last year, in response to the revenue impact of Covid-19, the council found a record $120 million in savings, and future budgets require ongoing $90 million a year in savings.
The improvements being made at council are a work in progress. There is much more to do as we strive to provide better services and infrastructure.
The council should expect scrutiny and criticism. However, those standing for elected office proposing to cut revenue and staff need to explain which services and investment in infrastructure they intend to cut and the impact this would have on delivering what our communities need and expect.
• Linda Cooper is chair of Auckland Council's Regulatory Committee and an elected councillor for the Waitākere Ward.