A decade to sack Rome

Watching from a small and demographically diverse offshore island community, it’s been pretty obvious that what’s being ruthlessly packaged as Auckland Council’s financial crisis could be more accurately described as an obvious and apparently unrepentant structural management crisis.

Albany councillor John Watson, in a comment piece in yesterday’s New Zealand Herald, detailed the near-total stripping of the city’s revenue-making assets in the last 10 years. The Ports of Auckland and the balance of Auckland Airport shares are likely to go the way of the earlier $335 million Diversified Assets Portfolio, the sale of which was also touted as an effort to pay down debt. The money raised, ostensibly to fund public transport and stormwater infrastructure, was gone without trace in 18 months.

“After that there’s nothing left: Job done in a little over a decade… the Barbarians will have sacked Rome and Aucklanders will have been relieved of all their income-producing assets… all that will remain will be large year-on-year rates increases,” he said.

“A generation of Aucklanders will be left wondering how their predecessors were able to squander all these valuable assets bequeathed to them, so quickly and for so little effect.”

This year’s diabolical fiscal hole was no mystery, except, perhaps, to mainstream television newsgatherers who cantered briskly past any meaningful scrutiny in search of the next outrage. 

A firm grasp of austerity politics and managerialist ideology was built into the first super city amalgamation in 1988 and the second in 2010 saw the same entrenched senior management survive a Royal Commission’s scathing denunciation of the first supercity’s culture.

Freed from the city’s Regional Council – the democratic governance layer of protection for city assets, environmental considerations and planning – the triumphant top brass went on to orchestrate a second bite of the city’s assets and economic life when the incoming National government in Wellington redesigned the “city of sails” to make it an “economic powerhouse”.

That apparently required the controversial purchase and establishment of departments and CCOs housed in a sequence of high-profile city buildings and with an alarming increase in middle management numbers, consultants and international ‘preferred supplier’ contractors. Hired and paid by council’s senior management, so no mystery there.

The former Grey’s Avenue council civic administration building was mothballed after council staff were moved out in 2014. It had housed thousands of well-resourced staff and had prime views of the Town Hall in the heart of the city. Eighteen storeys, infinite development opportunities, it was somehow sold for $3 million two years later.

Its penthouse has since been on the market for $15 million. Mayor Phil Goff later said the done deal saved ratepayers $80 million.

It can be noted that our own former county council building is now, to all intents and purposes, also emptied and mothballed so we are probably up for the same thing here.

The city has taken rich developer pickings from Waiheke’s rural land right from the first days of the 1988 amalgamation and one of the most frustrating issues along the way has been its lazy attitude to enabling maximum development, with derisory developer contributions to public funds for amenities, reserve contributions, or even basic infrastructure to serve the increased demands.

I’m sure every local board in all but the leafiest of Auckland’s suburbs will have comparable annoyances to share. 

At a general meeting on Wednesday 21 June the Waiheke Local Board put its draft plan for the next three years out for public submissions.

It was the first the public had seen of the document and very robust public submission process and participation in a public forum next month will be required if we are to achieve anything whatsoever from the $100 million that Auckland Council will take from us in rates and revenues over the next three years.

Compiled from earlier reports about the aspirations of Waiheke islanders, the draft sounds emotional and noble, both familiar tones from years of council-led revisions of District Plans that preached aspirational sustainable tourism and turned out to deliver more helicopter pads than new homes. Or that touted landscape protection with, in the fine print, proposals to extinguish the rural/urban boundaries that preserve the green spaces between the island’s villages.

The draft is underwhelmingly full of promises of wait-and-see advocacy but, at this stage, nothing specific or measurable. In its present form, it promises that the board will triage the island’s needs and wants if any money comes available and do its best, without being able to identify actions or initiatives.

Which is exactly the message that we don’t want to send to council officials enjoying an extraordinarily long period of penny-pinching procrastination and we will need to galvanise a more meaningful plan of action during this next six weeks.

This isn’t ‘have your say’. It’s probably fighting to retain vestiges of Waiheke as we have known it. 

There will be a community forum at 4pm on 2 August to discuss the board’s draft plan and we will need to put some key actions in place, if only to save ourselves from increasing dereliction. And swingeing rate rises. • Liz Waters