Tomorrow councillors will make their decision on the council’s emergency budget which is in response to the $525 million hole that has been punched in the council’s finances by COVID-19.
In their consultation, launched at the end of May, they asked about two solutions, a 3.5% increase which would see many projects put on hold with Auckland Transport estimating it would put mean $312m to $352m of shovel ready projects would be paused. This included including disastrous reductions of the safety and walking/cycling budgets that are estimated to mean up to 10 more people dying and 40 more seriously injured than would have otherwise been. The 2.5% option with even more severe implications.
We don’t know what way councillors are leaning on the options but we do know there’s been a lot of pressure from some areas for the 2.5% increase or less. Last week the council released the results of the consultation with 28% preferring the 3.5% option, 29% the 2.5% option and 25% asking for a 0% option. Although more than a quarter of the submissions came in as pro-forma responses from the Wellington based low rates group Auckland Ratepayers Alliance.
One of the big questions with the emergency budget has been what impact the government’s ‘Shovel Ready’ funding might have. The council family submitted 73 projects for funding and with many of those projects also on the list to be delayed was some suggestions this was all just a ploy to get them funded by the government.
At the beginning of July the government finally started to announced the outcomes from that funding, although only a very high level and that Auckland would get about $500 million. That sounds like almost enough but not all of it is for council projects, with the only project announced a $22 million towards the Auckland City Mission’s HomeGround project already under construction.
Frustratingly for council the government wouldn’t tell them just what projects will be funded, spurring Finance Committee chairwoman Desley Simpson to write an article for The Spinoff pleading with the government to tell the council what will be funded so they can set their budget.
It appears it wasn’t till Monday night that the government gave the council any information.
In a letter to Mayor Goff, ministers Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford assured Auckland Council that they would be able to count $98 million dollars of transport funding towards the council’s Emergency Budget for this year. There is also a commitment for another $98 million; however, these are for projects not currently funded in the Emergency Budget and therefore will not impact on this week’s decision making.
It’s disappointing that the letter from the government is so light on detail and I certainly hope they’re not just holding back what projects will be included so they can get more political mileage out of it closer to the election. It also means there’s another ~$300 million to other non-council projects around the region. This suggests that perhaps not all that many of the 73 projects are being funded.
Regardless, it seems that about $100 million can come off that budget hole which is good. What is not so good is that it’s also been revealed that they need to find another $244 million for Watercare projects as part of their response to the drought. It seems when it rains it pours – just not enough in the dams.
One aspect that will hopefully help lead to a better outcome is the feedback from local boards with them unanimously supporting the higher increase. As part of the papers for this weeks meeting it says.
- Local boards unanimously supported the proposed 3.5 per cent general rates increase.
- Two local boards specified conditions for their support. Howick Local Board on the proviso that the reserves and public open space properties, that are listed subsequently in its resolutions are not sold. Rodney Local Board predicated on the allocation of a minimum of $2 million to the Auckland Transport Unsealed Road Improvement Programme.
Also as part of this is a summary of the their feedback on transport and in particular the proposed reductions in the safety budget. It’s positive to see that most of them are very supportive of the safety programme. This suggests the four boards that support reducing the safety budget, either explicitly or by omission, are Franklin, Hibiscus and Bays, Howick and Orakei.
- The majority of local boards that provided feedback on the proposed temporary reduction or deferral of community safety funding did not support it. These local boards are: Aotea / Great Barrier, Devonport-Takapuna, Henderson-Massey, Howick, Kaipātiki, Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, Maungakiekie-Tāmaki, Manurewa, Ōtara-Papatoetoe, Papakura, Puketāpapa, Rodney, Upper Harbour, Waiheke, Waitākere Ranges, Waitematā and Whau local boards (17 local boards).
- Albert-Eden Local Board suggested funding raised by the regional fuel tax and earmarked for road safety projects should not be deferred and should be used during 2020/2021 for road safety projects, and note the strong support for addressing road safety received through Albert-Eden submissions. Hibiscus and Bays Local Board also noted the concerns raised by submitters.
- Only Franklin Local Board supported this proposal but requested that implications from the reduction to community safety funding are informed by local priorities as represented by local boards.
There is already going to be a lot of hurt to the community from the 3.5% option and compounding that with a lower rate increase it seems unconscionable that the councillors would consider the lower rates option.