How do the proposed budget cuts to council services stack up when the climate emergency has truly touched ground in Auckland?

Conservation advocates have taken aim at Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown’s budget proposal for the rest of his term, calling it not fit-for-purpose in a climate crisis.

Environmental organisation Forest & Bird has requested information from the council on what kind of analysis and advice the Mayor had commissioned before writing the proposal.

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Forest & Bird’s Auckland regional manager Carl Morgan said cuts to water quality targeted rates and funding to community groups involved in the restoration and care of the region’s wetlands and rivers could exacerbate the destruction of future weather events.

“It seems environmental stuff is the first on the chopping block – I assume that’s because people don’t think they are directly affected by it or haven’t seen the effect,” he said.

But following the anniversary weekend deluge, he said the impact of climate change should increase in visibility.

“We see quite clearly now the real-world implications of climate change,” he said. “It is happening.”

The mayoral proposal for the annual budget for 2023/2024 begins by outlining the context that led to the proposed decisions contained within. At that time – mid-December – that context was a cost-of-living crisis and a nearly $300 million shortfall in council funds.

It would have been a fork in the road for any new mayor. Faced with the challenges of a post-pandemic Auckland that was still getting back on its feet when it was slammed with high inflation and cost of living, two options seem obvious.

The mayor could propose to insulate Aucklanders doing it tough by keeping rates increases mild. This was going to take no small measure of frugality, and it’s inevitable some services and projects will go with it.

The other option would be tackling the challenges of that uncertain moment in time by ensuring investment in council services.

That was maybe the main difference between Wayne Brown and his defeated opponent, Efeso Collins. The latter’s promise of free public transport would cost the ratepayer, but move towards climate goals and ease the financial troubles of the city’s poorest.

Brown, meanwhile, was of the more austere camp, only interested in council services if they could prove themselves economical.

“If we don’t take bold action now, Aucklanders face the unpalatable prospect of over 13 percent increase in rates in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis,” he said in his proposal, aiming for a “prudent and sustainable financial path going forward”.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown was elected on a platform of austere and economical use of council funds to fix an almost $300 million dollar shortfall. Photo: Matthew Scott

That’s how it came to be that the mayoral proposal suggests reducing targeted rates for water quality and the natural environment by two-thirds apiece.

The proposal was published a month and a half before prodigious levels of rainfall would blanket the city in sewage-tainted water and rapidly change the interest of the average Aucklander in such previously prosaic topics as stormwater infrastructure and wastewater management.

Morgan was astonished by these calls.

“It’s shocking that this budget would slash funding for stormwater management. It’s the last thing Aucklanders need after enduring devastating floods,” he said.

“To adapt to our ‘new normal’ in a changing climate, we need more investment in green infrastructure, not maintaining the status quo, which has failed Auckland and its people.”

Brown called a nearly $300 million deficit in council budgets a “wake-up call” when he first arrived in office, and suggested his term won’t be “business as usual”. 

It’s language that has been echoed in the wake of the floods.

Councillor Chris Darby called the floods themselves a “wake-up call” earlier this week.

“We knew this – but maybe didn’t know it. We’ve got to act on this information.”

The mayor’s proposal may well change following the floods, and Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback was careful to tell the governing body it would be given a “broad range of proposals” to examine back at the first meeting of this council.

Some of the costs will be patched over by central Government, which is providing a relief fund for businesses and Civil Defence payments to struggling families – although the latter amounts have been called inadequate by Green MPs.

Money from Wellington is unlikely to save Auckland from having to make tough fiscal decisions, however, as the council discusses the mayoral proposal over the next few months.

Come March, Aucklanders will have the chance to have their say.

The finalised budget will be approved by the councillors in late June, and go into action at the beginning of July.

When the council first met to discuss the mayor’s initial draft of changes, the agenda acknowledged that some forthcoming financial decisions could work against the organisation’s climate action goals.

“Some proposals to reduce operating budgets in response to the financial challenges the council is facing could result in less funding for activities that support and contribute to climate action,” it read. “This will be carefully considered as part of budget prioritisation and any material associated risks or impacts will be detailed in consultation material to support consultation with Aucklanders.”

At the time, a few local boards spoke up with concern about reducing budgets for healthy water maintenance.

Hibiscus and Bays, Kaipātiki and Waitematā local boards didn’t support consulting on the proposal to reduce the healthy waters budget. Two of them specifically referred to the increasing number of storm events as a cause for concern and requiring retention of the budget.

Meanwhile, Aotea-Great Barrier and Waitematā local boards objected to reducing the environmental targeted rates.

Morgan said the impacts of budget cuts went deeper – long-term effects to be expected from slowly steering the Auckland Council battleship away from its own climate targets.

He pointed to belt-tightening at Auckland Transport, where $25 million in operating costs are proposed to be saved, and Eke Panuku, where $56 million worth of projects over the next few years could be deferred.

“These changes are not consistent with Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri, Auckland’s Climate Plan or Auckland Council’s responsibility to address climate change and urgently reduce emissions,” Morgan said.

Newsroom contacted the office of the mayor to see if there were forthcoming changes to the proposal, but received no response.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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