The Auckland Ratepayers Alliance last month identified four councillors who pressed for public consultation on a zero rates increase after it received leaked details of a confidential meeting.
They were Rodney councillor Greg Sayers, Albany councillor John Watson, Howick councillor Sharon Stewart and Albert-Eden-Puketapapa councillor Christine Fletcher.
The opportunity for a re-think of the rates increase came about as Council put together an Emergency Budget because of big changes to its original Annual Plan (budget) caused by the Covid-19 crisis. The original budget was already consulted on earlier in the year, but Council must now consult again as significant changes will be occurring.
During Council’s Emergency Committee meeting on April 16, Mayor Phil Goff moved that several issues be voted on together. These included a broadening of Council’s rates’ postponement policy, suspending the accommodation provider targeted rate and public consultation on two levels of rate increase – one at 2.5 per cent and one at 3.5 per cent – and the potential impact of these options on Council services, projects and finances.
An option to publicly consult on a zero per cent increase was excluded from the recommendation, even though the potential impact of a zero per cent increase on Council services, projects and finances will be included in the public consultation documentation.
During the meeting, questions arose as to how councillors could record that they disagreed with the decision not to consult specifically on the zero per cent option.
In the end, all councillors voted in favour of the full set of recommendations, but the four councillors identified by the Auckland Ratepayers Alliance had their wishes noted in the minutes that they wished to have a zero per cent rate rise consulted on as well.
Cr Sayers confirmed to Mahurangi Matters that he was among the four identified by the Alliance.
“I simply wanted the public to get a fair chance to give their feedback on all the options available to them, especially since all the information about a zero per cent rate increase, will be made available,” he says.
Cr Sayers acknowledged that people could indicate on the feedback form that they wished for a zero per cent rate increase but they would have to comment to this effect unprompted. It would not be as simple at ticking a “2.5 per cent” or a “3.5 per cent box”.
Cr Sayers says the vote on what the actual rates increase will be will likely take place in mid-July.
“A rates freeze would avoid putting an even higher financial burden onto ratepayers in the coming year, many of whom are now unemployed, are facing cuts in hours, or are losing their businesses, particularly in the local retail, accommodation, hospitality and tourism sectors,” he says.
But Cr Sayers acknowledges that a zero per cent rates increase will result in a substantial loss in Council revenue. This could mean a 20 per cent reduction in Council staff and a reduction in Council services. Moreover, Council would need to eliminate unnecessary red tape and eliminate any activities beyond its core business.
“Auckland Council needs to do the same as what every other business and household is doing right now, that is, cutting costs and getting back to basics,” he says.
Cr Sayers’ sentiments were echoed by Cr John Watson.
“Covid-19 will potentially bring about the biggest economic calamity to beset New Zealand since the Great Depression in the 1930s,” he says.
“There’s likely a huge dislocation in terms of employment and income for people, so the full gamut of options needs to be spelled out and clearly explained. I want the full range of options consulted on.”
Cr Watson says he maintains this view even while acknowledging that Council revenues have plummeted due to Covid-19 and Auckland is already carrying a debt burden of $9 billion.
Public consultation on the proposed rate increases will run from May 29 to June 19. Advertisements will alert Aucklanders on how to make their views known online. Following the consultation, input from Local Boards and decisions by the Council’s governing body, the budget is likely to be considered for adoption at the end of July.