15 Apr 2014

CORRESPONDENT, with Todd Niall

5:59 am on 15 April 2014

The Government's budget next month is one the year's most-anticipated political events - its element of surprise adding to the attraction despite the drip-feed of good news in advance.

Todd Niall

Todd Niall Photo: RNZ

A second budget being all-but-finalised next month, and arguably of equal importance to Aucklanders, is the $5 billion Auckland Council budget. But, unlike the Government's $70 billion offering, there will be no surprises.

Local body budgets evolve in public over six months and are properly known as annual plans - a name which doesn't cry out for public attention.

Of Auckland's 1.5 million residents, fewer than 2000 made any kind of submission to either the council or to their local board, with most commenting on issues in their local area.

Only 165 aired views on city-wide matters, other than the two featured issues on which the council specifically sought views - the $1 million cost of making the city's biennial Arts Festival an annual event, and the re-organisation of top-level sports such as rugby, cricket, rugby league and speedway around the city's major stadiums and venues.

Improving public transport, and boosting patronage are among Auckland's greatest challenges and are the biggest consumers of ratepayers' money, yet public transport city-wide attracted just 29 submissions, aside from those expressed at a local level.

That's despite the council-controlled organisation which runs public transport, Auckland Transport (AT), spending $1 billion of ratepayers' money each year and making decisions which impact upon the lives of most Aucklanders.

Both Auckland Mayor Len Brown and AT chairman Lester Levy want to lower fares public transport fares but it's not an easy task; fares are already jointly subsidised by the council using ratepayers' money and the government using taxpayers' money. Lower fares mean either higher subsidies, or faith that a surge in patronage and revenue will make up for the lower individual fares.

Rates only relevant bit for most

For many, the only part of the Auckland Council's budget they will be interested in is that the overall rates take will rise about 2.4 percent or, for households, 3.6 percent due to the gradual lowering of a premium placed on business rating levels.

This year's Auckland Council budget is a bit like the run-out year for a popular model of car - all of the attention is on next year's new-generation model, when its 10-year budget is re-drafted for the first time. It will be the first time since the council's 2010 inception.

The initial 10-year plan was largely an omnibus edition of the plans of the eight former councils but next year's will be the first to be shaped in line with Auckland Council's own vision and priorities for the city.

It will have to tackle the big issues of long-term debt, forecast to more than double as the city borrows to build and buy major new assets and infrastructure. It will also include yet-to-be decided new charges for fund transport projects.

Thrown into the mix will be the three-yearly revaluation of properties, which will leave some parts of the city with far higher rates rises than others, depending on how variable the changes in property valuations are.

Maybe that's why Aucklanders have turned out in such low numbers to have their say on this year's annual plan. They know that far bigger debates lie ahead.