Ground-hog decades


    Rates bills are flopping into island letterboxes this week and, given the current Mayor’s unshakeable and monotonously-repetitive belief that Covid holes have to be filled by austerity and sacrifice, the results are not happy. The biggest single increase we’ve tracked down is 23 percent on a commercial property in Oneroa. My own rates have gone up by $850. 

    Meanwhile, city councillors argue bitterly about whether selling off a whole 150 years’ worth of civic green spaces and public and waterfront assets including parking is saving the embattled ship or ruining the future for coming generations. The Mayor looks like he’s playing whack-a-mole. 

    But why?

    In real life, what’s with that fiscal Covid hole anyway?

    If you pull up Auckland Council’s summary statement of comprehensive revenue and expenditure for the two years to June 2020 and June 2021 (this time last year), it shows 2021 council rates revenue increased by $99,000,000 to just under two billion dollars (precisely $1,986,000,000).

    Revenue from fees and charges for Auckland Council and its subsidiaries (council-controlled organisations and Ports of Auckland Limited), its associates and joint ventures brought in a further $1.26 billion, more than the budget.

    Grants and subsidies were well up on the previous year and so were development and financial contributions. 

    In fact, total revenues were up on the previous year – and above budget by a good margin.

    Salaries and employment costs were down and operating expenses fairly stable too, leaving a surplus before tax of $1.9 billion this time last year.

    The statement of financial position shows total equity improved too, again well over budget. 

    What’s not to like? Why does my weekly $120 in rates rankle? Why is the mayoral narrative stuck in 1980s Rogernomic austerity when all the same number of people were gathering all the same revenues and spending all the same money?

    Was I wrong to label the city profligate a few weeks ago? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a profligate as a person (in this case entity), “given to wildly extravagant and usually grossly self-indulgent expenditure”. The Cambridge dictionary defines profligate (the adjective) as “spending money or using something in a way that wastes it and is not wise”.

    That’s the clue.

    All those people, all that money sluicing around and almost nothing happening. Except a fire-sale of citizens’ assets. Profligate.

    Last time I went to town, the old post office building was still under plastic, how many years later? Queen Elizabeth Square still includes a generous builder’s site behind hoardings. Red cones and squalid hoardings may or may not be mirroring underground progress on the train loop or just there to clog up the buses and ruin businesses. Queen Street on a rainy night is like Gotham. 

    One of the highlights of the Covid lockdown was our truncated but still brilliant America’s Cup contest that summer. Unfortunately Barcelona will host the next, and far more profitable, event because we were cheeseparing. 

    It looks suspiciously as if the Covid lockdowns allowed progress (though even then glacially slow) on a whole lot of new rules and plans, largely without public input, although Local Board chair Cath Handley reported a daunting lack of progress in this term.

    For all the book-balancing, almost nothing has happened here either, even though the last three years included a pilot scheme to allow more and better resourced local decision-making.

    Between one monthly agenda and the next recently, the island’s residual budget for capital works this year was shorn down to $205,800 – down 600,000, which was deferred to fill that ubiquitous Covid gap.

    We discussed and wrote up the story of supercity rate demands in a post Covid world this week, shaking our heads over the fallacies of property revaluations generated in back rooms and based on palpably insane market forces. See our story page 5.  On page 4, our Ten Years Ago column, to the week, recorded identical concerns of alarming rate rises and their effect on the community.

    Nominations for mayor, city council and local board candidates close this Friday 12 August and Herald columnist Simon Wilson had a useful summary of strengths and weakness among the mayoral line-up published on Tuesday. As he said, “It’s easy to cut services in poor parts of town when people don’t complain, or if they do, no-one hears them. Cut something in Devonport of St Heliers and there’s all hell to pay.”

    A rebalance of community representation and leadership in these elections seems crucial to ensuring citizen well-being, wholesome debate, a place for community distinctiveness and equity for the smaller and poorer wards. Also to challenge the huge skew of behind-closed doors workshops pushing the bureaucratic agenda. • Liz Waters


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