Beneficiaries of arts and culture events, homelessness initiatives and Citizens Advice Bureaus in Auckland could breathe a sigh of relief as Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown announced a walk-back of the severity of cuts in his new budget proposal.
But whether that sigh is a full lungful remains to be seen, with some services avoiding a ‘hard stop’ but still potentially forced to find independent funding or peter out.
Brown said he had listened carefully to feedback from the public and elected members, and had decided there was “just about a consensus” that the council shouldn’t proceed with all of the cuts to social and cultural spending.
$20m snipped from ongoing service costs presented an existential threat to a range of programmes such as Pacific Arts, Proud Centres, Auckland’s designation as a Unesco City of Music and support exhibitions in council art facilities.
Along with them is a lengthy list of regional events that expected to have to do some tricky contortions to keep running under shrinking community grants.
Brown’s turn is an admission of the importance of services with their heads previously in the noose, but whether this represents a definite stay of execution will only be known once the mayor’s final budget proposal is released early next month.
The Mayor emphasised that although the cuts may end up being less drastic, he hasn’t turned away from his desire to see council spend less.
“While a substantial reduction in operating expenditure across the group remains crucial to balancing the budget, which will include some cuts to regional services, I agree that we should not proceed with the cuts that come at the expense of services that are highly valued by local communities,” he said.
Former business consultant Sylvia Hunt is the volunteer chair of ACABx, the liaison body between the council and the 32 Auckland-based Citizens Advice Bureaus.
She was pleased to hear of the softened cuts, saying it showed how highly the community valued the service.
“It’s democracy in action, the people have spoken and the process has worked,” she said. “Obviously the community values us highly – it’s an essential service particularly for some of our most vulnerable people.”
But although she thought public feedback may have provoked a change of tack from the Mayor, she harboured some doubts about whether it would be enough to save Auckland’s CABs.
“It’s a relief to know we will be getting funding, but the quantum has yet to be determined – we just hope it’s enough for us to continue and remain viable.”
She said without the council providing its current 80 percent of funding for CABs, all of the bureaus in Auckland would be shut within a year.
Speaking on RNZ this morning, Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson said there will be no reduction of funding for CABs in the mayor’s new budget proposal.
“Aucklanders were very clear in the feedback… he’s reacted to that and I think that’s very positive,” she said.
Council-funded artist collective Art Makers Aotearoa spokesperson Sophie Sutherland said the Mayor’s proposed softening of the cuts comes with “a feeling of being short-changed”.
“People of Tāmaki Makaurau have rallied together in an exemplary way in the recent collective action of the Stop the Cuts campaign,” she said. “This initiative has obviously received some review from the Mayor but the proposed ‘softening’ is too little, too vague, and too late.”
She said the arts and culture sector is in “an already precarious position” and needs to be strengthened with long-term strategies and consultation with the communities that will be affected.
Alison Taylor, CEO of regional arts trust Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi, said she was pleased the scale of the cuts was being reconsidered and looked forward to getting the details.
“We hope that both current Auckland Council funding for arts and culture is preserved including the local board grants which fund important arts and culture initiatives for local communities,” she said. “We are also keen to see what has happened to Tātaki funding as they play a major role in supporting Auckland’s arts, culture and creative sector.”
Brown said he would have more to announce in upcoming weeks on working with central government more effectively when it came to the delivery of these services. This appears to be focused on clarifying the roles of local and central government and removing duplication.
But unless shaving off duplicated services can net the council some millions of dollars, it appears other austerity measures will still need to be leant on – potentially heavily.
Brown reiterated that softening cuts relies on councillors supporting a budgetary approach that uses a range of levers – these being asset sales, debt, rates hikes and service cuts.
“I am working to avoid double-digit rate increases in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, but I need the support of councillors and the public to achieve that,” Brown said.
This talk of double-digit increases also represents a bit of a walk back – last week, Brown suggested that the $30m increase to the budget shortfall meant there would need to be a 22.5 percent increase to general rates if no other lever was touched. They are numbers that don’t add up exactly.
However, in the hypothetical and highly unlikely situation of all other levers remaining untouched, a 16 percent increase would be needed. That’s a little over the 13.5 percent presented in the council’s consultation documents, which were put together before this last $30m bump.
This language signals that once the new budget proposal drops, Aucklanders may find their Mayor is calling for other levers to be pushed down all the more definitively.
Chief among these is the airport. It was reported earlier this week that Auckland Council was already talking to financial advisors over in Melbourne to look for a buyer – a move that came as a surprise to some councillors.
Brown’s language tells us that while he might have budged a little on service cuts, he sees no way forward without sacrificing something.
The question comes down to whether councillors and invested members of the public will call for more debt, more rates or a sell-off of assets like the airport shares.
Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson said she supported Brown’s decision to be more moderate with funding cuts.
“The Mayor and I are both keen supporters of arts and culture and have listened to Aucklanders’ views on how we can reduce the impact of cuts on the sector,” she said.
However, she said that the search for a more stable long-term funding approach to these services was just as important as saving them from the chopping block.
“While softening the cuts is important in the short term, the long-term work we are doing to secure a sustainable, fair funding position is just as important,” she said.
“That includes our continued advocacy to central government about provision of social and related services, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaus who contribute a valued service to many Aucklanders.”
It all speaks to a reprieve for services that may have had to shut up shop as funding ran dry over the next year, but also suggests that the pressure is not being fully lifted from them. Both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor are keen to explore other funding avenues, so for groups like Art Makers Aotearoa, which rely heavily on council funding, the weight may not have been fully lifted from their shoulders.