Auckland Council adopts new budget amid dismay at no progress on congestion or carbon emissions

Auckland Council finally signed off its new 10-year “Recovery Budget” today, with much back-slapping, some complaints and a lurking suspicion that something is about to go horribly wrong with transport.

Councillor Cathy Casey was so happy, she couldn’t keep the grin off her face. As of September 1, library fines will be abolished.

“People love libraries,” she said,” but 30,000 people in Auckland can no longer use the library because they have fines of $10 or more. That’s too much for a lot of people. I’m so pleased that cost will no longer be a barrier to access.”

She pointed her finger at Phil Goff. “There was some opposition. Mr Mayor? But they came round.”

Goff acknowledged she meant him, and that he had changed his mind. The new policy also includes an amnesty for people with existing fines who return the books.

On Thursday, the start of the council’s new financial year, rates will rise an average of 5 per cent. Goff said this was lower than most New Zealand cities.

“It’s only $147 a year more than now. But while that might not seem like much, it is for some people. I believe we’ve got the balance right.” After next year, the rise will revert to 3.5 per cent a year.

Over 10 years, council will spend $31.8 billion on capital works and another $55.7 billion on operating costs. But as Councillor Desley Simpson, the finance and performance committee chair, reminded them, only 37 per cent of the income in the 2021/22 year will come from rates.

That’s down from 39 per cent in the year just ending.

Debt is running at 270 per cent of revenue, less than the 290 per cent council has set as a debt ceiling.

Goff was also pleased the budget features $120 million in operating cost savings in the first year, and an average of $90 million per year thereafter.

Councillors and officials have debated this budget through 160 hours of meetings and workshops. They received 20,000 pieces of public feedback. And due to Covid, they started the process thinking they would be losing $1 billion in income. In the end it wasn’t quite that bad: $750 million disappeared.

It was Simpson who steered the process through. “Is it perfect?” she asked yesterday. “No, nothing is. But this budget is fiscally prudent enough to ensure that if we stay safe we can recover well, and if we don’t, we can deal with that too.”

Goff echoed that sentiment. “It’s not the plan I dreamed of,” he said, “but it’s a good plan.”

With an expected 22 per cent growth in Auckland’s population, he noted that they have lifted capital expenditure by 21 per cent over the 2018 plan. “That includes $4 billion more into water resilience projects and the quality of our water supply.”

The new sewer system being built on the isthmus, known as the Central Interceptor, “will stop 80 per cent of overflows”.

With Auckland Transport (AT) boss Shane Ellison in the room, several councillors took the chance to express their dismay at parts of AT’s own new spending plans.

The Regional Land Transport Plan (RTLP), signed off this week, is funded by council, Government and public transport fares. The council contribution is included within its Recovery Budget.

Despite the council wanting a 64 per cent reduction in transport emissions by 2030 and citywide dismay at congestion, the RTLP anticipates no relief from either emissions or congestion. And yet the big new Eastern Busway and other projects, which could help with both problems, have been delayed.

“I’m still gutted about the Eastern Busway, about how we didn’t have the time to try and reconfigure the funding,” said Councillor Richard Hills. “We were blindsided and we didn’t get the whole story.”

The reason for the delay is last-minute cuts by Waka Kotahi, the Government’s transport agency. Councillor Paul Young said it undermines the whole thrust of transport planning. Councillor Linda Cooper was “bitterly disappointed” and accused Waka Kotahi of acting in “bad faith”.

In regard to the whole budget, Councillor Pippa Coom said she knew there were many people who wanted lower spending. “But no one wants cuts,” she said. “No one has proposed any cuts in their own area or in any others. It’s dishonest to oppose the budget and not do that.”

Councillors Christine Fletcher and Sharon Stewart voted against the budget; all others were in favour. Councillors Tracy Mulholland, Daniel Newman, Greg Sayers, Wayne Walker and John Watson, along with Fletcher and Stewart, recorded objections to a specific part or parts.

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