Auckland Mayor Len Brown was right to act to end a costly court case involving the Auckland rescue helicopter trust and the regional amenities funding body. However, he was wrong to try to achieve resolution by talking of abolishing the funding entity and making his Auckland Council the direct financier of 10 important organisations.
The Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board was established by law before the founding of the Super City to ensure local public funding for arts groups, the Auckland Festival, the Stardome, the Voyager museum, Watersafe Auckland and three rescue groups: the helicopter service, surf lifesavers and the coastguard. It put decisions on ratepayer funds for these bodies beyond the direct reach of councillors or local board members and in the hands of appointed trustees. The Auckland Council selects six and the recipient groups the other four members.
It was necessary to set up the board because of shallow and parochial local body thinking which Mr Brown and others evidenced at the time the law was going through Parliament. Why should Manukau or Waitakere ratepayers pay for central Auckland arts groups and community bodies when they already paid for free swimming lessons or the Waitakere Stadium? As if those things were mutually incompatible, that people from Manukau did not visit the Observatory or the theatre or need saving at city beaches.
In the wake of the helicopter trust taking the board to court over a cut to its funding last year, and threatening a repeat over this year's allocation, Mr Brown is tempted to upend Parliament's solution and take financial decisions in-house to the council. He argues the board was set up when eight local authorities existed and now that there is one, it has outlived its usefulness.
That, however, ignores the fact that Auckland councillors - elected in wards - bring personal, local and historical biases that are bound to throw up similar issues to those of the past. They are also acutely exposed to the kind of lobbying pressure that the helicopter trust undertook in its bellicose assault on the funding body.
The 2008 law establishing the board is explicit in saying "funding is available only if the specified amenity has made all reasonable endeavours to maximise its funding from other available funding sources". The board says the helicopter trust, sponsored by Westpac and boasting a stable of corporate sponsors, has rich potential to raise money elsewhere. No one argues the helicopter service does not perform vital and welcome work.
In dispute is just how much money the Super City's ratepayers should put into that helicopter trust when it has a highly marketable brand and well-oiled fundraising capabilities. The funding board is offering $400,000, surely a figure not to be sniffed at when the council is penny-pinching all over town, such as stopping mowing grass verges to save a few million dollars.
Many of the other regional organisations are now on a sound financial footing, providing the funding board with long-term plans and putting their claims before, largely, independent decision-makers. If the Auckland Council, which seems to have backed Mr Brown in coveting the funding board's role, wants to change the grants, it should first look to change its nominees to the board. However, some were reportedly reappointed recently so the change of heart is odd indeed. Also, a court judgment on the trust's action cannot be far away. Let's wait for that finding.
Eliminating the funding board and letting councillors decide which public moneys go where in the arts and cultural and rescue sector would be akin to the central government removing the Lottery Grants Board and letting a caucus committee dish out the pork. The temptations to play politics are just too great.