Now we know. "We're little meerkats on the Serengeti," said deputy mayor Bill Cashmore at a council meeting this week, "and there's a big lion coming for us and we need a hole to hide in."
Cashmore is retiring and will be greatly missed. He was talking about the climate crisis and the proposal before council to raise a targeted rate, at $1.12 a week on an average million-dollar home, to reduce emissions. His own farm, he said, which is near Kawakawa Bay, is into its fourth year of drought.
It was the crunch debate on Auckland Council's 2022/23 budget, which will kick in from July 1.
Bear with, here are the numbers. Council is big: operating expenses are $5.1 billion and capital spending $2.8 billion. About half the money goes on transport.
There'll be an average rise in general rates of 3.5 per cent, although when you add the targeted rates, which also pay for improved sewage, fighting kauri dieback and other environmental initiatives, it's about 6 per cent. That's in line with most main cities, although Tauranga is looking at 13.7 per cent.
The Tauranga number is what happens when councils smugly keep rates too low to pay for the infrastructure their city needs.
Auckland's debt will increase by $900 million, which will take the debt-to-revenue ratio to 255 per cent. That's still less than the 270 per cent they expected and much less than the 290 per cent "headroom" they gave themselves as a result of the Covid crisis.
Is it a lot? Another way to describe debt is the ratio of debt to assets. Council's is 17.6 per cent. As finance committee chair Desley Simpson said on Tuesday, "Most people wouldn't mind if their mortgage was that low."
No one is saying it's all fine. But it's relatively manageable, as a result of an ongoing "value for money" exercise headed by Simpson. They saved $126m in spending last year, another $90m in the year just ending, and project a further $90m in savings for the new financial year, which starts in July.
All very prudent, but it's not without pain. Covid has hurt council badly, especially in the loss of fares from buses and trains. Staff numbers have been cut and a range of work deferred and defunded. The load is spread widely across council activities.
Prior to this week, councillors had spent 55 hours and 45 minutes in budget meetings. By the time they finished on Tuesday, at 8.33pm, that total had climbed to 61 hours.
Perhaps as a result of all those hours, only three main topics remained in dispute: income from the Government's Three Waters plans, the targeted rate for climate action and the general rates rise.
Goff is opposed to Three Waters and worked hard to change the Government's mind. He failed. Now, he proposes that council accept the Government's offer of $127 million as compensation for losing control of Auckland water. If Three Waters proceeds, there will be a further $381 million.
"This money does not require us to stop opposing the Government model," he said.
Christine Fletcher and Tracy Mulholland disagreed, both arguing that taking the money compromised the council's position.
Simpson told them bluntly, "Council is clearly against Three Waters. But if the Government is handing out a grant with no strings attached, I'll take it. Especially now."
The proposal for a climate action targeted rate, which they call CATR, pronounced "catter", went out to public consultation this year. Generation Zero and the Taxpayers Union/Auckland Ratepayers Alliance did their very best to mobilise their supporters. That is, the consultation wasn't distorted by a pressure group, it was vigorously engaged with by both sides. Thousands of non-aligned citizens had their say too.
The result: 68 per cent support for the targeted rate. It was endorsed in almost every part of the city and among all age and ethnic groups. As Goff put it, "Do we have a mandate? What the bloody hell more do we need?"
CATR will raise $574 million from rates over 10 years and most of the money will be spent on better bus services, decarbonising the ferries, extra walking and cycling lanes and a lot more trees – an urban forest, or ngahere – in parts of the city "which need it most". That's south Auckland.
Fare income from the extra bus services will add another $128 million to the kitty and the Government will provide $354 million in co-funding. All up, a billion dollars.
The centre-left and the centre-right on council both largely supported CATR.
Labourite Efeso Collins, who is standing for mayor, said, "Yes, it can hurt family budgets, but we need to act. My age group, the under 35s, have spoken clearly." It was a tense meeting and the jokes were welcome: Collins is well into his 40s.
Labourite Richard Hills: "If oil gets to $170 a barrel, as one economist is predicting, people won't be driving anywhere. We have to provide alternatives."
Hills said he was "sick of the hate for cycling, when Auckland Transport doesn't even hit its own targets". Hills is right: although only 1.3 per cent of the city's transport budgets are allocated to cycling, AT somehow manages to underspend even that.
On the right, Simpson said, "This budget is us putting our sandbags in place and moving to higher ground." Paul Young said, "CATR is not a silver bullet, it will provide some relief. But Aucklanders have been clear on this and they expect us to move forward."
With such broad support for the proposal, why was it a tense meeting?
Some councillors complained it didn't go far enough. Wayne Walker: "I know we could be doing much better, much faster."
Christine Fletcher said she has supported climate action all her life and this just wasn't good enough. Daniel Newman said he did not think it would change anything.
John Watson said 65 per cent of the money was going on the buses. "But by the time it kicks in, other initiatives will be deferred." He said there should be other measures to encourage people to catch the bus. He wondered why Auckland couldn't be like Tokyo, where the mode share for cycling, he said, is 14 per cent.
The thing is, they're right: council plans are not big and bold enough. There's too much focus on medium-term spending and not nearly enough on rapid-action solutions.
But Newman constantly complains about poor bus services. Why oppose a plan to make them better? And urgent solutions, like pop-up priority lanes for bikes and buses, are not expensive. They can happen regardless of the targeted rate.
The fact is, these councillors have voted against almost every specific climate initiative. They don't want faster action, they want more parking and more roads for cars. They definitely do not want the Tokyo law that prohibits parking on the street outside your house.
Chris Darby called them out. "The next council needs to be a climate council," he said. "There can be no more hiding in the shadows, claiming to be concerned but shrinking away when it comes time to vote." He's right.
But it's election year and there's been, ahem, a sea change. As the Teal independents showed in Australia, it's no longer tenable to vote against climate action, whatever your excuse. When it came down to it, only two councillors – Newman and Sharon Stewart – were opposed to CATR. Greg Sayers abstained.
As for the 3.5 per cent general rates, few councillors said anything at all. It's not big, but it was too big for Fletcher, Mulholland, Newman, Sayers, Stewart, Walker and Watson. They voted against.