Chair’s report April 2020

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I trust everyone is well and is adapting to this new way of life.  The actions taken by everyone so far have led me to be cautiously optimistic that we can beat the threat posed by Covid-19.  New Zealand may do better than most nations and we may get back to a relatively normal way of life in the near future.

But please keep up the social distancing, the washing of your hands and most importantly be kind to each other.

The local board is still getting to grips with the implications of Covid-19.  It will have a profound effect on council activity for some time to come.

Community support

I am always pleased to see the power of community and how people immediately adjust to help others in difficult times.  Locally I am aware that Vision West is providing significant support to local families in need.

Council itself has stepped up and is providing support.

There is an Emergency food parcel delivery service – 0800 22 22 96 – which has received 8,000 calls at the time of writing, 5,000 of which required assistance.  So far 3,250 deliveries have been made.

Amongst those seeking help are people who have never needed help in the past.  They are people who have lost their jobs and are suddenly struggling.

Council is also running a call system.  Staff are ringing people aged 70 years or older to check them.  Over 50 library staff being used.

Finances

The implications are significant for Auckland Council’s finances.

Wellington Council has indicated a likely $70 million hit to its income this year. I can say confidently that the hit to Auckland Council’s finances will be worse.

Fees and charges account for about half of Auckland Council’s income. Nationally the figure is more like 40%. It means for Auckland that any change in conditions will have a dramatic and very quick effect.

In working out how to respond there is always the fiscally disciplined approach, cut the expenditure back until fiscal equilibrium is reached. Unfortunately as shown by the great depression this is the wrong approach for a public entity to take, and all that it will do is make the recession worse.

Every Kensyan economist in the world will tell you that public institutions have to be counter cyclical, when economies crash public entities have to start spending. The neoclassical ideas proposed by the Chicago School of Economics in the 1980s that has dominated economic approaches through most of the world are in decline. We are all Keynesians now.

The problem though is that Auckland Council is nearing its debt ceiling of 270% of debt to income ratio.

This is a ratio set by rating agencies to measure the fiscal health of Auckland Council. The fear is that the rating agencies will downgrade Auckland Council’s credit rating if this cap is breached and borrowing will be more expensive. But at a time when even the strongest of corporations are having their balance sheets battered and public institutions are the only safe entities standing I think it is time to review this.

Sure the debt will have to be repaid. But interest rates are at a historically low point and to get us through increasing debt is an option I think Council should be considering.

The Government has effectively trashed its fiscal responsibility rules and is spending up large. It is time I think for Auckland Council to do the same.

What about rates increases? There has been calls to freeze rates and some families are going to face considerable hardship for the next year or two at least.

Auckland Council is in a difficult position. Its job is to spend up large, keep people in jobs, get major projects under way, not breach the Council’s debt ceiling and not hurt already struggling ratepayers.

Something has to give!

Staff are preparing scenarios for Councillors to consider.  There is the urgent procedure for changes to the ten year plan that can be used.

These discussions could be the most critical that Councillors will undertake.  In the spirit of co-governance I trust that local boards will be included in these discussions from an early stage.

Infrastructure

As one of the measures the Government is undertaking to stimulate and preserve employment it has asked Councils to nominate “shovel ready” projects that Councils wanted accelerated.  After a remarkably quick round of consultation Council has drawn up a list of projects that it wanted advanced.

The local board was asked for our view.  Our requested additions included Greenways Plan projects the Te Whau pathway, the North Western Busway, Project Gigwatt (solar power rollout), Kauri protection initiatives, and Sportsfields development.  These have mostly made the process so far but details are not clear.

The three westie local board chairs, Chris Carter, Kay Thomas and myself also took the opportunity to separately lobby for extensions to Waitakere Hospital.  By a happy coincidence an application was submitted last month to the Government for a significant increase to the Waitakere Hospital base.  It has plenty of land and there is a growing need in the west for its own hospital.  Again I am quietly confident that the request will be considered in a positive manner but time will tell.

The main concern that I have is that Council and the Government takes this opportunity to concentrate of infrastructure that will be needed to address climate change. 

Climate change is this second crisis that is developing more slowly but in a more dramatic fashion.  We should be taking every chance that we have to get ready now.

The effects of climate change are already being felt. Now at this time where there is an imperative to keep the economy going and provide jobs Auckland Council should also take the opportunity to prepare the city to become more sustainable and more resilient. Covid-19 presents to us both a crisis and an opportunity to improve our city.

Meetings

Normal meetings could be a while away and the meeting where this report will be considered is planned to be held via skype.  Future meetings may be held in the same way.

The agendas will be put up on Council’s Infocouncil page when it is available and I will make sure it also goes up on our facebook page.  All board members are contactable by email.

So if you have any comments or questions let any of the board members know.

And if you have any proposals for what you think we should be doing feel free to communicate these to us.

Already we have had a zoom meeting with residents involved in local emergency management.  The meeting, organised by Mark Allen, went well and I hope that we repeat this type of meeting with other groups.

Local Board Plan

Amongst everything that is happening is our drafting of the local board’s three year plan.

This is a legal requirement.  We are working on a draft and hope to have it released for discussion in the near future.

The circumstances are fundamentally different to what they were three years ago when we prepared our last plan.

A major downturn in the economy is inevitable.  Foreign trade will be rare and trips overseas the exception.  Local production of goods and food will become essential.  Oratia may again become a major fruit basket.

Ideally our lives will become simpler and less materialistic.  And we may be better placed to deal with climate change.

In preparing our draft I have wanted us to emphasise the importance of Manakitanga, of hospitality, kindness, generosity, and support and care for others.

Kaitiakitanga, the care and stewardship of our environment, will also be very important as will the care and support for local businesses.  Without good local jobs and the regular supply of goods we cannot achieve our goals.

The continued fostering of our art sector will also be critical.  Our arts sector is very vibrant and something for us to be proud of. 

I am sure that we will want to make sure that our parks and facilities are maintained to a good standard, that our social programmes reach across the local board area, and that we are effective with the resources that we have available. 

I am also sure that Glen Eden will continue to receive our attention. We will want to advance renewal of Glen Eden as quickly as possible. 

In our discussions so far members have wanted to emphasise that we are the local custodians of the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area.

The draft plan should be available for comment in May.  We will want as much feed back as possible so that we can make sure the plan faithfully represents local aims and aspirations.

Finally I often use a lot of pictures in my reports.  I found it difficult to find appropriate pictures for this report.  But I thought I would add this picture taken at the Glen Eden Christmas festival in November last year at a much more innocent time.  May we get back to that situation soon!

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