Auckland Council is throwing valued projects under a bus, although the bus itself may not come, because buses are being cut too. What's hiding in that emergency budget?
Council chief executive Stephen Town is leaving the job in two weeks' time. After five years he says there isn't any one thing he's most proud of. "I provide stability," he told me this week.
"I enable others to act with certainty and they get things done. I suppose the downside is predictability."
He's not leaving in the circumstances he would have chosen. As reported last week, his last task has been to slash half a billion dollars out of the council's budget.
It shouldn't even have been his job. By law, the mayor's office sets council budgets. But that office lacks the capacity to do it, especially at speed, so Town and his admin team were asked to take on the work instead.
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In many ways they did well. The cuts have been widely distributed, so they don't cause too much damage to any one area. They've worked hard to find projects they can defer without doing too much damage, rather than cancelling them altogether.
And there's a consistent theme in all the supporting material: social programmes and climate emergency targets must not be undermined. The trouble is, good intentions won't save us. Those are exactly the things that have been set back by the emergency budget.
It happens in several ways. Locked-in spending is retained while new spending is sacrificed. Cutbacks in services translates to fewer rubbish collections, less cleaning, less grounds maintenance, fewer backroom staff. It's largely the low-paid who lose their jobs when services are trimmed.
Last week council called for public submissions on the emergency budget plans, and the response was enormous. By the end of the first weekend 14,000 had been received, and according to Town they did not yet include many "pro forma" submissions organised by lobby groups like Generation Zero and the Auckland Ratepayers Alliance. The process remains open until June 19.
The council is desperately hoping the whole thing will go away. The Government is supposed to be announcing $3 billion worth of infrastructure spending – and with a third of the population Auckland should be able to expect a third of the money. Even a sixth would help immeasurably.
That's partly because, with more revenue from Government for strategically important infrastructure, council would be able to borrow more itself, while still staying near to its debt-to-revenue ceiling. Also, it will be able to free up some existing funds for other uses. But there's been no word from the Government yet.
The emergency budget is an annual budget, covering the financial year July 2020 to June 2021. Most of its cuts are deferrals. But the golden rule for cost-cutting always applies: once something's gone, it's very hard to get it back.
If this new budget does proceed, some of its most damaging impacts will be to road safety, community projects, stormwater improvements and other climate-related spending, and various public transport services.
Auckland Transport has worked hard in recent years to develop a "Safer Streets" approach to its work. As part of that, lower speeds on 10 per cent of Auckland roads are scheduled for later this month. But the new budget cuts more than $70 million from various road safety programmes, spread across rural and urban roads.
Funding has also gone completely for public transport (PT) services to new greenfields housing, which completely undermines the idea of holistic community developments. Bus services generally are cut back and PT concessions for children, students and seniors could be too. There'll be no new or expanded Park and Rides.
Lake and Esmonde Rds won't get their upgrades, and nor will Lincoln Rd. At least $27 million will disappear out of various budgets for footpaths, cycleways and shared paths.
The local boards will all have their priority projects stopped. This is a major blow: last year, each of them was asked to put one local initiative (OLI) at the top of its wishlist, with guaranteed funding. Much-needed sports and recreation facilities featured prominently. All are now on hold.
Town centres also miss out through the postponement of the development agency Panuku's "transform" and "unlock" programme. The likes of Avondale and Henderson, desperately in need of some TLC, won't get it for another year. If it helps, inner city spending is also slashed.
Library budgets are down 28 per cent. The Auckland Art Gallery is cancelling three big shows; financial pressure had already put two of them on the block. Arts and community events lost $2.36 million in funding and the inorganic rubbish collection service will stop. That could have unintended consequences, with the potential for more illegal dumping.
Unintended consequences could also affect cuts to the climate emergency response. Stormwater improvements have lost $39 million, or 30 per cent of their budget, and there's a 75 per cent cut to the $20 million "climate change response fund". When the flooding starts, which it does every year, are they just not going to clean up afterwards?
Mayor Phil Goff's flagship programme for addressing climate change – electric buses – is on hold. Three have been ordered; no more will be until further notice.
There seems little danger anyone will try to sell down the council's shares in Auckland International Airport. Psst, wanna buy some empty terminals? Not a good time.
Not a good time either to sell all or part of the port, should anyone want to do that. Its future, and that of the freight industry generally, is likely to remain uncertain for many more months, if not years.
But another $150 million worth of property has been identified for potential sale, along with another $100 million worth of car park buildings. Council has rejected such sales in the past, but a pandemic focuses the mind. What about the golf courses? Just saying.
Councillors, senior staff and board members, meanwhile, have taken pay cuts.
All these cuts assume a rates rise of 3.5 per cent. Things will be even worse if it's 2.5 per cent. If there's no rates rise at all, a new razor will have to be applied and the result will be really bloody. The decision comes in July.
Is there a better way? Apart from having the Government ride to the rescue, that is. Perhaps the answer has to be yes. But the new budget must be in place next month and the urgency of the situation means there's no time for strategic rethinking. That will be a job for Town's replacement.
Councillors met this week to approve the chosen candidate, and an announcement is imminent. Have they chosen someone else in the Town model, a backroom boss to provide "stability"? Or do they want an administrator with a different skillset?
The challenges are enormous, and not limited to intense budget pressure and a shaky economy. The uneasy relationship with Wellington, the ongoing shakedown of the Super City, growing inequality among the city's citizens, the outmoded transport and housing sectors – and that's before you even start to think about the climate crisis.
Someone with the experience and skills to inspire councillors to rise to all those challenges would be quite good.