Auckland Councillor defends proposed sweeping cuts amid criticism over budget

An Auckland Councillor is defending a proposal to cut massive amounts of funding in an effort to get spiralling debt under control.

Consultation is open for mayor Wayne Brown's first budget with massive cuts proposed to several key areas.

The proposed cuts are widespread and cover areas such as arts/culture infrastructure, climate action, community empowerment programmes, cycling/pedestrian improvements, early childhood education centres, education programmes, homelessness prevention programmes, local board community grants, public transport funding, stormwater infrastructure, the Citizens Advice Bureau and youth centres.

Brown said the proposal is about cutting "excess spending and getting our debt under control".

It comes as the Council faces a $295 million funding shortfall and massive debt.

But it hasn't gone down well with the conservation group Forest & Bird. Auckland regional manager Carl Morgan told AM on Friday cutting funding for climate action is the last thing the city needs, especially in the wake of the devastating flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle.

"The current budget is proposing to cut up to 60 percent of local board funds and $3 million from the region's contestable funds. These funds are key for local community groups such as Forest & Bird to do the mahi that we do on the ground," Morgan told AM.

"These things could be pest control, weed management or maybe restorative planting of wetlands."

He said the recent flooding highlighted huge infrastructure issues in the city, which wetlands and conservation work can help alleviate.

"Right now in the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis is not the time to be cutting those areas. The underinvestment we've seen in the past was very clear during the cyclone and flooding.

"The infrastructure clearly failed us. You would have heard sponge city mentioned quite a lot afterwards. For that concept to work, we need a functioning, healthy natural environment. We need healthy wetlands and healthy native forests in our urban areas and without this funding, the community can't go out and do that essential work."

Auckland Councillor Maurice Williamson told AM it's important to remember this is only a proposal. But Williamson said the harsh reality is the Council is facing a massive funding shortfall, and something has to be done.

"Please look at the background, we are looking at $11.7 billion in debt. We're spending $1.5 million a day on interest payments servicing that debt.

"You should be bringing in Councillors from the previous regimes and demanding to know how they let it get this bad, how they let the debt get to where it is, how we've got almost no options," he told AM.

Williamson said the budget proposal is "very fair" and there are cuts to everything.

"The arts are coming in and saying, 'You can't cut us'. The events people are saying 'You can't touch events'. We've got people saying, 'You can't sell airport shares'.

"Well if a family is in dire need, if their mortgage is blowing out and their costs at the grocery store are going through the ceiling - they have to make cuts, and so do we."

Williamson said the proposal isn't actually cutting climate-related programmes, and instead is proposing using a surplus from a targeted rate to fund it for this year.

"In 2018 the Council brought in two very special rates. There's a water quality rate and a natural environment targeted rate and that has actually accumulated quite a big surplus in the account because they haven't been able to do everything on the kauri dieback and the pest management.

"So what the mayor has said, for this year only, let's use that surplus to keep the programmes running. We are not cutting anything. We are not cutting the programmes. We are not changing anything that is of interest to Forest and Bird. But we can actually use the surplus funds collected this year to help alleviate the budget shortfall."

But Morgan said Forest & Bird isn't confident the reallocation will only last for a year.

"The 10-year budget is coming up next year so I see that as a test run for that. If we don't opus back on these environmental measures being cut now then that could see a long-term effect on the city."

Consultation on the proposal is open for a month and all the details can be found here.

Watch the full interview above.