More details have been revealed about the sweeping cuts contained in Mayor Wayne Brown’s proposed budget for Auckland. Sam Brooks explains what they would mean for the city’s cultural life.
Last week, a memorandum was delivered to all councillors by mayor Wayne Brown, updating them on what was being done to cover the $295m gap in Auckland Council’s 2023/2024 budget. Many of these proposals have been well-reported, including a reduction in operational spending by $125m and selling the 18% share the council holds in Auckland International Airport.
What got less coverage was a $41m cut in funding for regional services, regional contestable grants and local boards. Below, with help from Whau local board member Sarah Paterson-Hamlin, we explain what those cuts could mean for Auckland’s cultural life.
Where is that $41m coming from?
The current proposal involves the following cuts to Auckland Council budgets:
- A $20m reduction in general rates funding of regional services, such as community and education programmes, economic development and other social activities.
- A proposed $8m reduction in regional contestable grants (which would result in a near-complete cut to those grants, with few exceptions). This $8m has, of this memorandum, been amended to a “maximum” reduction of $5.65m, explained below.
- A $16m reduction to local board funding, representing a 5% cut to overall operational budget for local activities
Additionally, the public are to be consulted on $3m worth of proposed changes to fees for council services and programmes (effectively raising them), a $1m cut to the direct provision of early childhood services, and a $27.5m “operating savings target” for TAU, Tātaki Auckland Unlimited, Auckland’s biggest cultural agency and organisation which runs venues like the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre and the Civic.
So what services are actually going to be cut?
In short: A hell of a lot.
That $20m reduction in funding of regional services represents the most severe cut.
The term “regional services” is broad, but it applies to nearly every cultural event and community service that the council provides. As Paterson-Hamlin describes it, it’s more a case of what isn’t up for cuts. “The mayor’s budget proposes cutting all regional grants including community development, arts, events, youth programmes, sports, and heritage programmes,” she says.
The memorandum lists the following as services that would be stopped, reduced or would have to find alternative funding:
- Arts and culture programming (including council funding for Pacific Arts programming, Proud Centres, and support for exhibitions in council arts facilities)
- Education services (including in-person research services at libraries and environmental education programmes)
- Regional events (including events like Music in Parks and CultureFest)
- Community and social innovation programmes (including the Southern and Western initiatives)
- Community programmes and social services (eg. ending Citizen’s Advice Bureau funding)
- Outdoor experiences supporting young people
- Funding and staff for council’s operational homelessness response
- Regional coordination or support of community focussed initiatives
- Climate action related behavioural change activities
- Defunding COMET, a council-controlled organisation that supports skills training
Paterson-Hamlin explains that this reduction in funding would deliver cuts to all council-delivered community and social programming. This could be achieved by, for example, reducing the number of days a week that art galleries and libraries are open, increasing prices for places like Auckland Zoo and hiking fees for the use of other council facilities like community halls.
What about the reduction in regional grants?
The Spinoff covered this back in December when these cuts were first proposed.
Contestable regional grants exist in various forms across every New Zealand city, and they are a core part of a council’s work. They enable funding to be given to community organisations to run services and activities that council might not be equipped or best suited to achieve.
Although it was originally proposed that an $8m reduction could be achieved, it now appears that only a $5.65m reduction can be achieved, due to obligations that Auckland Council has to fulfil, including multi-year funding agreements, Māori-specific funding, and grants issued by a local board or other external party.
All of these contestable grants are in the areas of arts, culture, events, community, sport and recreation, environment and heritage (all the good stuff, essentially). However, the maximum savings of $5.65m could be “achieved” by broadening the scope of this reduction to all regional grants and non-contestable activity.
The memorandum notes that this means stopping funding to a range of partner organisations that deliver regular events and programmes which are “highly valued” by many Aucklanders.
OK, so what about the $16m reduction to local board funding?
Although the $16m reduction seems less dramatic – only a 5% cut to local board budgets – Paterson-Hamlin says that it is actually massive. “What this translates to in the vast majority of local board areas is cuts of around 50% to all locally driven initiatives,” she says. “That’s all your local board grants, community events, environmental initiatives and much more.
“For us in the Whau, if this budget is passed we would be forced – very much against our will – to cut all local board granting as well as the vast majority of our events and support for things like community hubs.”
A list of services and organisations Whau Local Board funding in their latest grants round includes Rape Prevention Education Whakatu Mauri Trust, YMCA North, Charlotte Museum, Vision West Community Trust, Whau River Catchment Trust, and Avondale Community Action. If the council cuts go through, all of them will lose their local board funding.
“Virtually every single sports club, environmental group, community hub, and charity in Auckland will suffer from this,” Paterson-Hamlin says. “As we saw in the recent flooding, it is these same organisations that stepped in when council couldn’t, providing food, shelter and support.
“If these things are axed now, we might save some money today, but it will cost us thousand-fold in the future.”
Can these groups and organisations find this money elsewhere?
“The problem is that the fundraising, grants and donation sector is already oversubscribed, particularly after the last low interest rates of the previous three years, which have damaged a lot of grants that exist on interest alone,” Paterson-Hamlin explains.
While there are other options for funding – Foundation North, Creative NZ, in rare cases private philanthropy – if organisations that have traditionally existed due to council support all start approaching the alternative funders, everybody is going to miss out. You only have to look at the knock-on effect from recent CNZ funding rounds to see this in action.
Why are the cuts being made to council services and not elsewhere?
Paterson-Hamlin explains that there are four “levers” to pull to fill this budget hole. These levers are rate increases, debt increases, asset sales (like the airport shares), and operational savings and service cuts (everything described in this article, and more).
Rate increases are largely off the table (and unpopular), as is increasing debt, although Paterson-Hamlin notes that while the budget proposes raising council debt to $75m, the ceiling is actually $140m. “The argument [for] not going [up] to the debt ceiling is we won’t be able to borrow as easily in the future because it might impact our credit rating,” she says. But, she argues, “what on earth is the point of having a good credit rating if we’re going to sit on it like Scrooge McDuck as we come out of a three-year pandemic, massive floods and a cyclone in case of a rainy day?
“We just had, literally, the rainiest day in our history.”
At the moment, the only proposed asset sale is that of council’s shares in Auckland Airport.
Thus, the fourth lever is being pulled.
Is this a temporary budget cut?
“Slashing a budget by half is one thing, but trying to double it in the future would take an extremely progressive council,” Paterson-Hamlin points out. “It’s not a temporary deferral, it’s a full-on cut which would be extremely challenging to claw back in the future.” She hesitates to say that these cuts would mean these grants would be gone for good, but is adamant that some organisations wouldn’t come back from it, some would go under immediately, and others would need to dramatically reduce services.
What can people do about this?
The public consultation process for the budget begins on February 28. The Auckland Council’s Have Your Say site allows people to register so they can be advised when the consultation document goes live, and offers other information about time frames for decisions, public events and Q&A sessions with councillors in attendance.