For as long as anyone in Auckland can remember, the city council has been complaining that other councils in the region do not contribute enough to amenities that all enjoy. Auckland Zoo and the Museum of Transport and Technology were the prime examples. Motat, kept barely afloat by the city in latter years, received a legislative lifeline in 2000 when Parliament forced all metropolitan councils to levy their ratepayers for its upkeep. Now the city is promoting legislation to put as many as 11 organisations on the same financial footing.
One is the zoo, another is the National Maritime Museum, another the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. So far, so familiar. All three have been often cited as worthy of wider funding. But thereafter, the list looks increasingly opportunist. Stardome Observatory? A regional amenity, no doubt, but a small one. Auckland Festival? That is the city's baby; other councils have their own, less-ambitious community festivals. Auckland Theatre Company? The NBR NZ Opera? Who decided they were more deserving than other troupes?
The list was compiled for the Auckland City Council by a group of 10 appointed citizens chaired by a businessman and arts patron, Robin Congreve, who chose the 11 from 13 nominations. The main criterion, said Dr Congreve, was that the amenity should be the kind of thing found in a "world-class city".
Professional theatre certainly fits that bill. But why throw in the voluntary coastguard, surf life-saving, Watersafe Auckland and the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust? These are all worthy regional services that have survived hand-to-mouth on sponsorship and donations. Doubtless, the legislation would make their existence much more assured and comfortable, but the region's ratepayers have a right to know the cost they will face if the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Bill is passed.
All that can be said with certainty is that the cost will exceed the income the organisations have earned or raised to sustain themselves. Access to public money invariably makes an organisation more ambitious and less in need of negotiating bargain rates from suppliers. Many who have given their time and services at little or no cost will be already calculating their charges. And the extra benefits may be no more apparent than at Motat, whose subsidy more than doubled when a regional levy was imposed six years ago.
If ratepayers are expected to take on the financing of these 11 organisations, they must be able to exert some control over their management. The Auckland City Council has been unkeen to share control of its amenities with the councils it asks to share the expense. Its proposed legislation would set up a funding board to be appointed by an "electoral college" of council representatives. This body would set the annual levy, and the funding board would oversee the business plans of the recipient organisations.
Control would thus be twice and thrice removed from ratepayers' votes. The set-up bears a suspicious resemblance to the "supercity" plan put forward this year. That, too, was fond of the phrase "world-class city". It, too, tried to bypass the Auckland Regional Council with a new governing body that would be largely appointed by constituent councils. The same question asked of that proposal can be asked of Auckland City's bill: what is wrong with using the regional council we have? It could set the levy and look over the recipients' business plans. And it is directly answerable to voters.
The bill that would impose an amenities levy looks like another attempt to circumvent democracy. Until it corrects that impression, it cannot expect enthusiastic support.