April 16, 2015

Guest post: Larry Mitchell on what's wrong with Auckland Council

So what is wrong with Auckland Council?

Well quite a lot really - if daily headlines are any guide. Signs of a dysfunctional Council organisation have now reached a point where the direct intervention of the Minister of Local Government is being urged.

A scheduled official review of the Council, under the legislation that created the Council is required this year to address Council performance issues of concern and to provide in future a programme of performance measurement and improvement.

Among the issues that assuredly deserve this level of scrutiny, one in particular has significance well beyond its prosaic sounding nature. After all, the defect, the subject of this piece, that of a flawed budget and accounting process is hardly the subject of animated conversations over a latte in the fashionable suburbs of Auckland.

Nevertheless, the way this Council currently runs its accounting cutter has a huge effect and contributes greatly to current Council deficiencies.

Let’s put it like this: If you, (say) ordered a shed to be constructed to your specifications at an agreed cost on your property only to find that a shed of a differing lower quality had been erected on the neighbours plot, I venture to suggest you would at the very least withhold your payment.

In the Auckland Council World though

  • rates and charges are set using compulsive powers,
  • delivery of the services supplied, whether they meet the standard expected (or are even applied to the particular area of benefit the charges relate to) is by no means assured and
  • payments are seldom rebated, even when there are obvious defects.

Accountability to ratepayers for the services supplied by Councils has deteriorated over the past decade or more. The rot set in when Councils, in the mid-nineties progressively moved their accounting systems to what became to be known as “The Council-Corporate Treasury model”.

In simple terms, the well-established and accountable, detailed audit trail of revenues and expenditures, all tracked down to the ward level area of benefit were replaced by an organisation- wide aggregation of information. The detail was lost.

As a result, assessments, often called for by groups of ratepayers characterised as “What did we pay for … compared with what did we get?” are nigh on impossible.

A Councillor recently advised that his enquiries of this kind on behalf of Waiheke ratepayers has been met with obfuscation and spin.

Similarly, Northern Rodney ratepayer enquiries, intended to establish the value received in their area for their Council services payments failed to satisfy the group. Their own assessment was that up to half of their area payments had not been spent in their area, particularly on their crumbling rural roads.

Debates of this nature rarely satisfy anyone, such is the dearth of detail and specifics including ratepayer’s value received for a defined area of benefit.

At the time Council systems were changed, all those years ago, justification for the change, in part was the matter of complexity. Council management asserted their inability and the high administrative costs to maintain the necessary level of detail needed to answer such enquiries.

Now, with mature, flexible, modern IT systems in place providing powerful relational data base information and systems of financial management, this excuse no longer holds up.

To maintain this fiction today and when the information could readily be supplied to satisfy essential levels of accountability, this stance amounts to a version of Auckland ratepayers getting the mushroom treatment so beloved of bureaucracies.

The upcoming Council performance review should put fixing this state of affairs high up on their “To Do” list.

Larry Mitchell is a Local Government Finance & Policy Analyst who lives in Auckland Council’s Northern Rodney rural area township of Puhoi. If you would like to contribute a guest post please contact us.


April 15, 2015

Launch of the Taniwha Tax report

Today the Auckland Ratepayers' Alliance was proud to stand beside a number of others as we launched a report produced by our sister organisation, the Taxpayers' Union. We joined representatives from the Auckland Property Investors' Association and Democracy Action who gathered to launch the paper entitled The Taniwha Tax: Briefing paper on Auckland Council’s new Mana Whenua rules.

Aucklanders deserve to know how these new rules affect them and, potentially, the values of their properties.

Most affected property are completely unaware of the provisions and what they entail until they learn about a site on or near their land, or are told about the need to obtain a Cultural Impact Assessment when applying for resource consent. To make things worse, the Council has not even verified that the 3,600 sites deemed 'of value' still exist. The Council have refused to check that the sites exist, but expect ratepayers to go looking for any of the number of Mana Whenua groups to see if they have a site of cultural significance in their backyard.

The Briefing Paper quotes extensive criticisms of the provisions made on behalf of some of New Zealand’s largest corporates, including Vodafone, Spark, Chorus, Transpower, Vector and Watercare.

Navigating through RMA red tape is already hard enough. Yet these provisions pose a further hurdle for property owners seeking development consent. The rules mean that resource consents may require negotiations with up to 19 Mana Whenua groups; resIf you thought that navigating RMA red tape was hard, these provisions could require you to negotiate with up to nineteen Mana Whenua groups in order to gain development consent, the rules mean that resource consents may be subject to expensive modifications, even if the reasons are entirely spiritual in nature.

The Council has previously tried to dampen public concerns, claiming that not many Cultural Impact Assessments have been required so far. They ignore the cost and delay of applicants having to go to iwi groups to ask whether a CIA is required.

Most of the messages contained in the Paper are not those of the Taxpayers’ Union. It deliberately repeated what would otherwise go undiscovered in the files of lawyers, planners and Council insiders. This work is to shine some democratic light onto what has happened.

The report is available to download here.

April 13, 2015

Launch of Auckland Ratepayers' Alliance

Rate hikes, proposed new taxes and a culture of wasteful spending has led a group of concerned citizens to form the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance which begins operations from today.

Our purpose is to hold Auckland Council to account. With 130 spin-doctors the Council is very good at side-lining the concerns of neighbourhood ratepayer groups. By combining forces, this new group will shine the light on those wasting ratepayers’ money.

If you're an Aucklander who like us is sick and tired of the Council wasting ratepayer money join us by clicking here.

Traditionally it’s been the business and property groups that have stuck up for fiscal responsibility within Auckland’s local government. Unfortunately most Auckland business groups are now heavily reliant on ratepayer money and find it difficult to bite the Council hand that feeds them.

We're an initiative of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and it's thousand or so Auckland-based members. Our objectives are similar to the Taxpayers' Union, albeit we are an Auckland-based group dedicated to holding Len Brown, his Council, and officials to account.

Click read more to learn more about us, who we are and what we stand for.