Auckland Council criticised from within over budget blowout

From Checkpoint, 5:16 pm on 5 October 2017

Auckland Council has been criticised over its $42 million salary budget blowout by its own finance committee's deputy chair, who says three straight years of blowouts is unacceptable and something has to change.

The Council Group, which includes the six Council-Controlled-Organisations, spent $853 million on salaries last year, compared with its budgeted $811 million.

It's the third year in a row the Council has blown its salary budget. In 2015 it came in $32 million above budget, and in 2014, $63 million over budget.

"I can understand a mistake once, but I can't understand it three years in a row," said Orakei Councillor and deputy chair of the Council's Finance Committee, Desley Simpson.

"Something has to change, and it has to change now," she added.

Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town said the $42 million budget blow out was due to various things.  

"A provision of $18 million for compliance with the Holidays Pay Act, $11 million in redundancy costs as we transform the organisation to make it more fit for purpose (Libraries, IT, People & Capability)  with these costs resulting in savings over time", and "an increase in staff … in growth areas such as the Port and building control, where the work is cost-recoverable." 

Ms Simpson says those reasons are fair, "but overall I think what hasn't been explained clearly and articulately, to give Aucklanders confidence that we are being fiscally responsible, is the absolute detail around the blowout". 

As well as the budget blow out, the number of staff earning more than $200,000 a year across the Council Group increased by a quarter, from 155 to 194

At the council itself, that number increased by a third, from 55 to 73.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff, who campaigned on a stick-to-budget philosophy promising to cut the fat at the council, has issued a please explain to Mr Town about the salary increases.

Mr Town said the council had to compete against the private sector, and its salary bands were reviewed against market data.

He said the 194 staff equated to 1 percent of its total 11,893 staff earning more than $200,000 a year, "and is in line with the Wellington City Council but below other public sector organisations such as MBIE, and well below the private sector for equivalent".

The Ratepayers Alliance spokesperson, Jo Holmes, said Mr Goff needed to ensure his council sticks to budget.

"The salaries bill is now 52 percent of the budget. Core services are just being cut to the bone, roads have potholes that aren't getting fixed, parks aren't mowed, and places are just looking uncared for at a time when these top bureaucrats are increasing their own salaries and lining their own pockets."

The council's six council-controlled organisations are: Auckland Council Investments Limited, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), Auckland Transport, Panuku Development Auckland, Regional Facilities Auckland, and Watercare.