There have been hiccups, but Phil Goff is upbeat after his first year as mayor, writes Bernard Orsman.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff marked his first year in the job reading headlines about bloated salaries at City Hall.

Only months earlier, the former Labour leader was pulling out all stops to secure a living wage for 2064 council staff, lifting their wages to $20.20 an hour over three years.

It took courage and political skill to win a modest pay rise for the most vulnerable council staff. The policy begins with an increase to $18 an hour this year and costs $9 million to implement.

I am going to fight to hold rates at 2.5% but that will be a huge battle

Meanwhile, in the bureaucratic corridors of power the number of staff earning above $200,000 rose sharply and this year's wages bill blew out by $42m, all in the blink of an eye.

Goff offered a typically measured response on the sensitive issue, voicing concern at the increase in high pay packets, preaching the need of value for money and supporting competitive salaries to attract good people.

In many respects, the salary scandal sums up Goff's first year in the unpredictable world of Auckland Council - two steps forward and one step back.

This time last year, Goff won the mayoral chains and won well. Aucklanders liked the idea of placing the Super City in the hands of a skilled, hard-working politician in two Labour Governments who could be trusted to do the job.

He set out a broad agenda for change, doing more with less and rebuilding public confidence in an institution that had plummeted to a 15 per cent satisfaction rating with Aucklanders. Goff called the result "rock bottom" for council.

Running with the slogan - For a better Auckland, a city where talent and enterprise can thrive - Goff promised to eliminate wasteful spending and needless bureaucracy, to cap rates at 2.5 per cent, put greater emphasis on public transport, to tackle housing, enhance the environment and not sell "strategic assets".

It soon became clear that Goff's problems are his predecessor, Len Brown's problems: unfettered growth clashing with creaking infrastructure, a city up to its eyeballs in debt and a Government not responsive to new funding for the Super City.

Early on, Goff was confronted with daunting revelations in the Herald about Auckland's dirty secret of sewage pouring into the Waitemata Harbour and heavy storms in March that poured silt into the city's water supply and led to calls for water savings.


The early days were messy for someone of Goff's pedigree. He talked of bringing in former Air New Zealand boss Rob Fyfe to improve Auckland's image. He didn't. He made immediate enemies of councillors Mike Lee and Chris Fletcher by booting them off the board of Auckland Transport. He crossed swords with Ateed over funding for a Joseph Parker boxing fight and a new global branding campaign.

Then came this year's budget, which under the Super City model, is presented and overseen by the mayor. The budget was noticeable for three reasons. Feathers flying over the "bed tax" that exhausted huge political capital to get over the line, holding rates at 2.5 per cent and virtually nothing in the way of savings.

Richard Branson (left) and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff plant trees at Shakespeare Regional Park. Goff has promised to plant 1 million trees in three years. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.
Richard Branson (left) and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff plant trees at Shakespeare Regional Park. Goff has promised to plant 1 million trees in three years. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Dean Purcell.

Goff is relying on a "value for money" rolling review of council services to find his promised 3 per cent to 6 per cent ($40m-$80m) of savings over and above budgeted savings.

Today, there's a more cautious fiscal tone coming from Goff, and hints of nasty surprises in store for ratepayers. Goff has no money to play with as he prepares a new 10-year budget and no agreement with Government on how to plug a $6 billion transport funding gap.

Last week, Standard & Poors reaffirmed Auckland Council's AA credit rating. The rating agency applauded the council's financial management by containing debt amid huge demand for infrastructure but said its budgetary performance was "weak" and expected capital spending to fall away.

"I am going to fight to hold rates at 2.5 per cent but that will be a huge battle," Goff told the Weekend Herald this week.

Faced with the prospect of the Government "stopping Auckland contributing more to its own infrastructure" and "running out of the soft option of borrowing to pay for infrastructure", Goff is considering targeted rates in the 10-year budget to improve water quality. No figures have been given, but they will add to the rates burden of whoever is targeted.

An even more controversial proposal is to charge children to play sport at local parks to keep up with the demand for sporting facilities, although Goff's political antennae suggests it's a no-goer.

Phil Goff has worked hard in his first year on relations with Wellington. Signing an agreement on the City Rail Link with Finance Minister Steven Joyce and Transport Minister Simon Bridges.
Phil Goff has worked hard in his first year on relations with Wellington. Signing an agreement on the City Rail Link with Finance Minister Steven Joyce and Transport Minister Simon Bridges.

The political newsletter, Town Hall, says the 10-year plan is going to be the hardest, most taxing in the council's short history, "an absolute doozy, a mind-numbingly complicated juggling act".

Goff remains upbeat. He has struggled with the move from the structured environment of Parliament to being one vote on council while keeping the complex beast called Auckland Council functioning.

The council-controlled organisations - a term often referred to as a misnomer - continue to give Goff grief by ignoring his requests for greater accountability and transparency and being deaf to ears of Local Boards and ratepayers. It took an age for Auckland Transport to respond to fix a bug with the HOP card. Ateed has been subjected to a "first principles" review.

Then there's the matter of the America's Cup, where Goff's response to Team New Zealand's victory in Bermuda was more that of a Cabinet minister weighing up the costs than savouring the moment. It revealed his achilles heel, lacking the X factor when it comes to leadership or, in this case, being the city's number one cheerleader.

"I'm not here to entertain, create headlines or be a singing mayor. I want to go about the job in a workmanlike way, but I also want to inspire Aucklanders," Goff told the Herald in the run-up to last October's election.

A year later, he says he is heartened by the hugely positive response he receives, even among audiences like the St Heliers-Glendowie Residents Association and North Harbour Business Association, hardly "a hotbed of left-wing radicalism".

"I'm confident I'm providing responsible leadership for Auckland, that I'm doing it conscientiously, that I'm putting in every hour that God gives me in a day to serve the people I was elected to serve," Goff said.

When Phil Goff won the mayoralty he made a number of promises in his first year to Aucklanders in a letter to the Herald. We republish the letter and mark progress
Dear Aucklanders
In the coming year I will:

Ask council to cap rate increases an average of 2.5 per cent, bringing rates rises down.
What's happened? Goff held rate rises to 2.5 per cent in his first budget

Work with Government to seek new sources of infrastructure funding to bring forward programmes to tackle growing congestion and gridlock on our roads.
What's happened? Lots of talk but no action while traffic chaos on the roads got worse.

Work with Government to increase the supply of new housing and to ease demand so we can start to reverse growing unaffordability.
What's happened? Goff commissioned a housing report, secured government funding for infrastructure to speed up housing developments. Measures outside his control have cooled Auckland house prices. First-home buyers still struggling to get a foot on the property ladder.

Initiate environmental programmes such as planting a million trees to green our city and tackle problems of siltation of our harbours and increasing carbon emissions.
What's happened? Goff says 170,000 trees are in the ground, little has been done to improve siltation of harbours and carbon emissions is tracking on a "long-term" path.

The one thing I won't do is allow the Ports of Auckland to further encroach on our harbour by reclaiming more land and building wharves further into the Waitemata.
What's happened: Last month, Ports of Auckland chairwoman Liz Coutts said it is no longer acceptable to reclaim more land every time it needs capacity, saying the company had listened to Aucklanders' desire to protect the harbour.

Report card after one year:

Goff has taken a number of small steps in his first year. He has let council and CCOs know it is time to do more with less, achieved a 2.5 per cent rates rise and worked hard on Auckland-Wellington relations. The job has proven a lot different and tougher than national politics. His style has been more that of a Cabinet minister than a frontman for the city.

Looking forward to year two, Goff has to lift his game when it comes to delivering tangible results for ratepayers, otherwise he will drift into election year with few runs on the board. The new 10-year budget will be exceptionally difficult with no spare money, but the platform to show his mettle and repay the faith Aucklanders have placed in him.

Performance score: B