2 candidates for Auckland’s mayoralty have committed to a “ratepayer protection pledge” guaranteeing they won’t vote for any rate or levy hikes exceeding 2%/year in the next council term, and a third candidate has written a policy to cap the residential average rise at 2%. But the candidate most likely to win if the right of politics vote is split 3 ways, Phil Goff, released a fiscal policy yesterday designed to restrict rate rises to an average of 2.5%.
The call for a ratepayer protection pledge was made last week by the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance, created by the NZ Taxpayers’ Union, and won support from mayoral candidates John Palino & Mark Thomas. Victoria Crone had already written her own policy with the 2% cap.
Mr Goff’s version of crimping the always-up thinking includes requiring every council department to make savings that would contribute to a new efficiency target of at least 3% of overall spending.
All these percentage thinkers have it wrong.
Picking a number to cut rates by is a great way of ensuring the arms & legs will be cut off, leaving a corpulent policy and no ability to implement it. Auckland City Council did that several years ago.
When the new super-city council was created in 2010, it should have looked at what it needed to do and stuck with it. But the council, in that first year, had an almighty project on its hands to bring consistency across a region that previously had 7 territorial councils & one regional council and, at budget time, it did the usual exercise of seeing what could be left out.
Starting at “what to do” instead of “what not to do” sets the parameters, which can be reviewed.
An example of how to do things badly is in consent processing, an area of the council where customers pay for the service. A predetermined percentage cut would mean that, as the need for inspections rises, fewer people would be available. But, by investigating efficiencies – in this case, including policies set by both government & council – a leaner yet better performance might be possible.
The net result for me is a cross against all those candidates – no ticks.
The Hide ploy
When Act MP Rodney Hide set up the super-city council, a central ploy was to ensure politicians couldn’t get their hands on the commercial businesses of the council, which were semi-quarantined in “council-controlled” organisations.
Thus Auckland Transport, Watercare Services & a few other arms of the council were almost, but not quite, autonomous. But their budgets are, in the end, up for approval by the council, and the council needs to know what justifies the figures, so the semi-autonomy concept could never work satisfactorily.
Mr Goff’s fiscal policy shows a determination to turn those organisations, effectively, back into departments: “A particular focus will be on combining council & council-controlled organisations’ procurement systems and progressively moving towards shared services for the group in terms of back office functions such as finance & human resources.”
Are council departments the way to go? They could be, but New Zealand experience tells you that politicians never fund services & infrastructure adequately when they have direct control – and direct exposure to the reactive votes – which was a big part of isolating them from this risk.
Tax allocation & infrastructure funding
Mr Goff – former housing minister & leader of the opposition – set out brief policy yesterday on 2 issues which deserve far more consideration than politicians have given them: allocation of tax income and financing of infrastructure.
If you allocate tax income according to geographic population, Auckland may well be receiving less than its due. On the same basis, would cycleways – or new housing subdivisions – get any funding? Few people are riding bikes because it’s dangerous or impractical, and nobody lives in these unbuilt subdivisions yet, but logic tells you that funding is required if change is to occur.
Extending that logic, you could argue that these subdivisions should be built somewhere else that’s cheaper, where the land is available, and therefore that the focus should be on shifting jobs to centres outside Auckland.
He advocated replacing the interim transport levy on rates with a petrol tax, as was previously proposed by the council & rejected by the Government, and later switching to a congestion charge or toll. In all cases you can argue that someone is benefiting without paying, and someone is paying without benefiting. Mr Goff’s view on roads was that those who benefit from reduced congestion should pay.
His views on tax & funding: “Working with central government to expand its infrastructure fund and investigate infrastructure bonds: While more than half of New Zealand’s growth is in Auckland, the extra gst & income tax collected goes to central government. I will advocate for Auckland to get its fair share of that extra revenue to pay for servicing that growth.
“To reduce the risk of even greater gridlock & a worsening housing crisis, we need an additional $17-20 billion for core infrastructure to support future urban land areas. It is inappropriate & unfair to fund that solely through the blunt tool of raising rates. We need to find alternative innovative funding sources such as sharing more Government revenue with council, public-private partnerships or raising infrastructure bonds.
“I will also advocate for the removal of the flat levy on rates to pay for a shortfall in transport infrastructure funding in favour of a road charge. This could be in the form of a petrol tax that is later replaced by a congestion charge or toll. It is only fair that those who benefit most from using the roads contribute to the cost of reducing congestion.
“Implementing this fiscal policy will be an important step towards restoring ratepayer & Government confidence in Auckland Council by ensuring that in future it works effectively & efficiently in the best interests of the people of this city.”
Mr Goff is getting somewhere, but should be far further advanced on these policies. I think Orakei board member Mark Thomas has done far better in advocating detailed policies, with assessments of how they would work & their impacts.
Attribution: Candidate policies.