Over the past few months the life of this local board chair has been a hectic one. As well as navigating COVID-19 life in general, COVID-19 life in business, I have also been taking on the challenges associated with COVID-19 life for Auckland Council and the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board. In all of these areas life has changed.
For Auckland Council and Devonport-Takapuna Local Board the key challenges have been around money, i.e. the Emergency Budget, and around trying to conduct business as usual in the post-COVID-19 environment. This business was done via Skype and Zoom etc. until into June, and over the past six weeks things have returned to normal with more face to face workshops with members and staff and public business meetings and community forums. While the online meetings are convenient, they are challenging for formal meetings, so it has been great to get back into normal meetings where we can have good conversation and robust debate.
Auckland Council’s emergency budget has been a very interesting exercise for me. While the decision on what the final budget looks like (adopted on July 30th) was made by the governing body (mayor and councillors), council has consulted thoroughly with the local boards and the community. For local board chairs there have been many opportunities to have our say on behalf of our communities. There have also been many unknowns with things changing along the way as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.
A simple explanation of Auckland Council’s Emergency Budget problem is as follows:- Covid-19 Lockdown etc. caused a severe drop in the council’s revenue – forecasted $475m; Water shortage caused by a record drought is forecasted to cost council a further $224 million with work needed to correct this; So total financial impact on Auckland Council forecasted $700m+; Interesting to note that rates account for 40% of council’s income. 60% comes from other means, including public transport fares, development contributions, building consent fees, resource consent charges, parking charges, Auckland International Airport and Ports of Auckland; Savings found come from a reduction in the capital program of $280 million; Council is reducing operations expenditure by over $200 million (council and the CCOs); Sell down $244 million worth of underutilised property and facilities; The mayor and deputy have taken a voluntary 20% salary cut, and councillors have taken a 10% cut; Many staff have also taken voluntary salary cuts; A 3.5% rate increase for the 2020/2021 year.
While 2020 and beyond will continue to be a challenge for everyone, the outcome from the decisions made in Auckland Council’s Emergency Budget have in general been pretty good for the Devonport-Takapuna community. Budget cuts have been kept mainly to capital expenditure for new and un-contracted projects. In simple terms this means we will have to wait a bit longer for new stuff and ‘renewals’ of existing assets. Operational budgets for our locally driven initiatives remain as they were. So the funds used to support community operations and groups have not been reduced. Maintenance of assets will continue very much unchanged. The local board, supported by our ward councillors have worked hard to maintain funding for the community.
Many in the community will be concerned about the $244 million sell-down of assets. It is a shame that this decision had to be made under this financial pressure. I have made it very clear that I am not one of the “you never sell anything” brigade. What I have learnt over the past 10 months (since being elected), is council owns lots of legacy property that is not ‘fit for purpose’ and it’s not working for the city. We need to get it working for the city or realise its value and invest that back in the future of our city.
In that vein it is pleasing to see the old Takapuna RSA building owned by council is now a wonderful modern youth facility called Shore Junction. It has been completed recently. This is a prime example of taking an underperforming asset and turning it into something neat for the community.
The former Takapuna Library at 2 The Strand is one of the local properties sitting idle. The good news for local residents is the proceeds from any sale of this building will come back directly into our community to be used for the community. We need to ensure we spend any money realised from the building wisely to create community assets for the future.
Lake Road continues to be a challenge. Despite more than three years of planning and consultation it was disappointing that a majority of our local board (four against, two in favour) voted against the resulting plan from Auckland Transport. I have been vocal in advocating that we take the $47m and just get the project done, influencing desired tweaks along the way. The plan is not perfect, but it will make improvements to the road, safety for all and moving people down the corridor. The fact that a majority on the board didn’t support the plan means the whole project, and the funding, is now in jeopardy. I just hope that the strong advocacy of our two ward councillors may keep it on track. Member Toni van Tonder and myself are strongly aligned on this topic and voted in favour. We remain ever hopeful that it isn’t a dead duck.
I have been disappointed since being elected with the coverage I receive from the editorial in the local publications that are part of the Devonport Publishing stable (Devonport Flagstaff and Rangitoto Observer, run out of Devonport). The publisher of these titles attends all public meetings of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board. I consider there is unfortunately little balance in some of the publications on a range of matters including with regard to the performance of my role. I have no problem with publishers holding us and council to account as this is clearly important. However, while I appreciate all publishers will each have their own preferences and views, I consider publishers should always endeavour to produce content that is fair and balanced. I have the utmost confidence in the public to read and digest all media articles in a measured way, and my challenge to all publishers is to produce fair and balanced content.
On a more positive note the local board has got a great deal done in recent months, despite the adversity. This has included – Navigating through one of council’s most difficult financial situations; Approving our draft local board plan; Approving the Open Space Management Plan; Approving phase one of the Local Parks Management Plan; Approving the draft concept plan for the Takapuna Town Square; Keeping the Hurstmere Road project on track; Funding new wayfinding signage for the Milford, Sunnynook, Castor Bay areas; Opening Shore Junction through additional funding; Opening new assets such as Lake Pupuke South Walkway, Windsor Reserve Playground and Sunnynook Park. We have a great team of local board staff at the DTLB who are great to work with, help us to get these things done, and share our passion for the community.
Make sure you have your say on our draft local board plan that is currently out for consultation. See info below.
My focus remains on getting things done and achieving progress for our community. I reckon we are putting some runs on the board.
Aidan Bennett, QSM
Chair, Devonport-Takapuna Local Board