Yesterday Auckland Council found $39.5 million to add to its 2019-2020 budget, without raising rates, cutting programmes or going more into debt. How did they manage this marvellous feat, and what did councillors say about it, and how marvellous was it really? It rather depends who you ask.
When the mayor and councillors got together yesterday to approve their annual budget, there wasn't much debate on the budget itself. Almost everyone in the room supported it. There weren't any amendments at all.
But they did spend most of the day making speeches, because it's election year. The big date on their minds wasn't July 1, when the budget comes into force, but October 12, when we vote to keep them or replace them.
Mayor Phil Goff didn't get it all his own way. Councillor Mike Lee hunkered down in his seat and growled out a warning about secret overspending and out-of-control officials. It's possible he's quite fond of doing this, although he always puts on a good show of utter exasperation.
"A failure of leadership", he complained, and, "A trajectory towards bankruptcy!"
Most of his colleagues were busy on their laptops or getting a cup of tea. The council meets in a big open circle: Lee might get their attention more easily if he covered himself in sackcloth and ashes and prowled around the middle with a placard. "A trajectory towards bankruptcy!" is rather good, really.
Sadly, for all Lee's dire warnings, he did not offer any suggestions for budget cuts, except to say, as he always does, that we don't need light rail. He did praise the CRL, which is not light rail, as a "keystone" project, but as he votes against every funding allocation for it, it's difficult to know what he means about that.
Lee has not announced if he's standing again, yet. Previously, he's had the support of City Vision, a coalition of Labour, Greens and like-minded people in isthmus Auckland. This year, City Vision has forsaken him and chosen Pippa Coom, chair of the Waitemata Local Board, as its candidate.
Councillor John Watson had a couple of warnings of his own. There is a "debt ether", he said, referring to the mystical substance once thought to fill the air and make us do strange things.
He also described spending projects as "shiny things", although it wasn't obvious what they were. Libraries? Buses and trains? Sports fields? The Auckland Art Gallery? Presumably he didn't mean Eden Park, which received an unprecedented $10 million grant from council earlier this year, on his initiative, although it is not even owned by council.
Councillors Alf Filipaina and Chris Darby both took the opportunity to remind him of that.
MAYOR GOFF set the tone. "I take pride in the proposal that we have produced today," he said. "It sets out a way forward. We want Tāmaki Makaurau to be a world-class city. History will judge us on our ability to navigate the challenges, setting aside political differences and finding the way forward."
Goff is clearly aware there's an election coming up. He said they could all be "proud of the progress we have made in the priority areas of transport, housing and the environment".
In transport, he said, they were spending $245m more than in the previous year. He mentioned the start of construction on the $1.2 billion Eastern Busway and the Puhinui interchange, which is on the eastern and southern rail lines. The interchange will be key to delivering rapid transit from the airport through Manukau to East Tamaki and Botany and will also offer a one-transfer route to the city centre.
"Public transport patronage will reach 100 million trips a year next month, or possibly the month after," he said. "That's 13 months ahead of what we expected."
He acknowledged there was a downside to this: it means extra costs for ratepayers. That's because council funds public transport through a levy per passenger trip: the more trips, the more it has to pay. That's a different model from roads: ratepayers and taxpayers still pay for them, but upfront. There's no levy per car.
"When it comes to housing," he said, "a record number of 13,874 consents, if memory serves, were approved in the year to date. That compares to just 3500 eight or nine years ago."
Goff said council had been advocating strongly to the Government for more help with social housing. "We told them we need another 3500 state houses over the next three years and that is what we're getting."
He said they had brought forward "by 20 years" the programme to clean up water quality on the beaches. "Within a decade we will have substantially resolved the problem of polluted water on our beaches."
The SafeSwim programme, he said, was not just a leader in New Zealand, but was world leading. The council is now in a joint venture to market it to the world, and expects financial benefits to flow.
"One of the things I'm most proud of," he said, "is the work you and I have done to make Auckland a better place to live. It used to be said, nobody will ever vote for a rates increase. We found out that they did. We consulted on the plan to raise special environment and water quality levies, and the response was two and three to one in favour."
His plan to have a million new trees planted during his first term in office will be fulfilled next month, when the millionth tree is planted at Totara Park in Manurewa. "People used to scoff at that idea, too. But I can tell you, last weekend we had 200 people in Hunua, planting 11,000 trees."
He made a thing of allocating $250,000 to get rid of graffiti in the rail corridors. He did not mention this merely restores the funding for that purpose wiped from Auckland Transport's budget in the previous year.
Goff also highlighted a $5 million contribution to the Auckland City Mission's HomeGround project: a new building on Hobson St offering accommodation and wraparound health and welfare services. No one opposes this funding, but it was not a new item in the budget.
Goff described his budget as "common sense and affordable".
Next year the council will also spend the first part of the extra $500m for the City Rail Link. Most of that spending will occur towards the end of the five years of construction still to come.
"I'm pleased almost every councillor voted to support that and recognised the importance of the CRL to decongesting our city," he said.
At a meeting earlier this year the only councillors to oppose it were Lee and Greg Sayers.
COUNCILLOR CHRISTINE FLETCHER had things to say. "I recognise some magnificent projects that are proceeding," she said, before warming to her true theme, which was that she was "distinctly underwhelmed". No one expected less: she's running for deputy mayor on the John Tamihere ticket. She said she "had hoped for more of a sense of the possible".
She then took what might have been one of the greatest risks of her political career, by deciding to criticise Jacinda Ardern. "The Prime Minister has not once come to talk to us," she said, just slightly more in sorrow than in anger.
Fletcher's ward, Albert-Eden-Roskill, contains much of Ardern's Mt Albert electorate: it's likely they share a voter base.
But Fletcher did say she was strongly in favour of the targeted rate on the environment. This was also a surprise, because Tamihere is on record opposing Goff's use of targeted rates.
It's the second time in just over a week Fletcher has contradicted her boss. Last Tuesday he complained Goff was spending too much on public transport and she, standing right next to him, pushed for more of it. She's keen on free school buses, which she thought could cost around $8 million.
In the meeting Goff took it on himself to say he likes that idea too – "for early next term". Fletcher stopped herself from telling him to keep his hands off her policies.
She did say she was "bitterly disappointed" there had not been more analysis by council officials. What she wanted was "contestable advice" – she meant she had wanted the chance to advocate for those free weekday services. The officials responded that the procedure of drawing up the budget was the same as it had always been.
Fletcher was also "hugely disappointed" Auckland Transport didn't know until now about the extra costs incurred because patronage is up.
That was another surprise. She'd asked a question of AT officials earlier in the meeting about when they knew, and they said it was discussed internally at the end of last year and flagged to councillors in February.
There was a tantalising hint of trouble at t'port when councillor Chris Darby raised the issue of the "dolphin" moorings council wants to build on the end of Queens Wharf. Darby has always been opposed.
"We've got $10 million in the long-term plan," he said. "We know the estimates have risen to $16 million and I hear it could be $20 or $21 million. Is it clear there is nothing in the budget that will allow the dolphins to proceed without them coming to the finance committee?"
That is, would the whole thing have to go back to council for another vote before work could start?
Finance committee chair Ross Clow said yes.
Mayor Goff chimed in to say he has asked the council's chief executive, Stephen Town, to find out if the cost can be reduced and to confirm that it will, in any event, be recovered from the cruise shop industry. That's always been the plan.
Goff said, "If I get negative answers on those things I will need to consider bringing it back to the governing body for reconsideration." There's been a lot of protest about that project and he could be changing his mind.
Darby suggested they should find a more permanent solution. Goff agreed that would be good, perhaps using Captain Cook Wharf or even Bledisloe Wharf for the big supercruisers.
HOW DID they do it? Find $39.5m for new spending, without raising rates, borrowing more money or cutting programmes in other areas?
The official answer is: efficiencies. Goff's big spending review has made savings in insurance, back end costs and reorganising how some services work. They've cut 4 per cent from spending. If they keep on the current trajectory, they estimate they'll have cumulative savings of around $560 million over a decade.
Councillor Penny Hulse spoke late in the debate. She's retiring and said it would probably be her last budget speech. She wanted to praise the mayor, she said, for raising the environment and social spending to the important status they now enjoy.
And, she said, she wanted to praise him for not being "flashy", not being distracted by the calls for "big-vision stuff", but getting on with the work and getting it done. She thought he deserved a lot of praise.
Of course, nobody actually knows if Mike Lee is wrong. Maybe there will be apocalyptic revelations after the election. Maybe we'll all be wearing sackcloth and ashes.
Lee was the only councillor to vote against the mayor's new spending in the budget, like free weekend travel for kids, and he was joined in opposing the whole budget by only three others: Fletcher, Sayers and Sharon Stewart.