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Mayor Brown must pay the money back

As widely covered by media over the weekend, the EY report into suspected misuse of Auckland Council resources by Len Brown is deeply concerning. In addition to the undeclared freebies (including undeclared gifts from Skycity - at the same time as publicly championing the convention centre deal) the report fails to deal with the concerns raised by the Taxpayers' Union in relation to the Mayor's trip to China in January 2013. We still don't know for example:

  1. What was Mayor Brown's spending on the trip?
  2. Why was the trip not announced in the same way as other official trips by Mr Brown?
  3. Why did officials mislead us about the existence of the trip?
  4. Why were officials instructed to refer all enquires about the trip to Mr Brown's Chief of Staff?
  5. Were officials instructed not to disclose the existence of the trip?
  6. What was/is the Council or Mayor trying to hide?

Apology hollow without offer to refund Auckland ratepayers

Today we called on Mr Brown to pay back the money for both his personal expenses and undeclared gift listed in the EY report.  Without the offer to pay the money back, we think the apology made by Mr Brown today to ratepayers is meaningless.

Click continue reading for our media release.

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Competition winner announced

Yesterday the Taxpayers’ Union  announced the winner of its competition for the Aucklander with the highest percentage increase in rates and user-charges.

The winner is Mrs Glenys Smith of Howick, whose rates have more than doubled since 2003.

Mrs Smith is a classic example of an Auckland householder paying more but getting less. In 2003 Mrs Smith’s rates were $1,371 in 2003. They are now more than double, up to nearly $3,100 for 2013/2014.

Mrs Smith also pointed out in her entry that, “When the wastewater charges were taken off the rates, the rates didn’t go down to compensate!”

Mrs Smith wins a KraftMaster petrol lawnmower (perfect for mowing the berms).

The other winner is Mr Colin Shearer of Sunnyhills. Though Mr Shearer didn’t provide the required user charge details to qualify for the lawnmower, his un-capped rates increase was the highest we received. As a discretionary prize, the Taxpayers’ Union is giving Mr Shearer a weed-wacker.

Mr Shearer’s uncapped rates increase is 34.2 per cent, from the 2011/2012 base year. That means that his rates will be over a third higher, in less than four years.

While Len Brown is hiding behind the ‘average’ figure of 2.5 per cent, this is merely an attempt to disguise just how much extra some Auckland households are paying. As the entries show, many Aucklanders are paying much more, while the Council is reducing services such as berm mowing.

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Kaipara District Council’s wastewater project - an expensive audit failure?

The report of the Auditor-General’s inquiry into the EcoCare wastewater project was released on Tuesday. It revealed serious failures in the management of the project, and strongly criticises Audit NZ. Inaccurate record keeping, mismanagement of the project, lack of financial advice and expertise, and reliance on private partnerships saw a huge budget blowout, with costs exceeding over $63m. For example, the effluent disposal bill alone increased from $361,000 to $14m.

How did the Council pay for this budget blowout? By raising rates for Mangawhai residents. The annual cost to ratepayers was a consideration in assessing the affordability of the project. However, the summary of the report reveals that the Council in fact decided to “increase the number of estimated ratepayers that would be covered by the scheme and contribute to funding it”. This is a fundamental flaw, and the Auditor-General concluded that this decision was not based on an adequate account of predicted growth in the area. This, as well as the undisclosed liabilities are precisely the things Audit NZ should have picked up on.

Overall the report suggests Audit NZ was failing audit 101

The Auditor-General's office (which includes Audit NZ) is supposed to provide assurance that government departments are performing as they should. The report details that:

  • audit quality of the project was varied;
  • the quality of documentation for some audit files were inadequate, especially those explaining why judgments were reached;
  • there was a failure to reassess the project between 2006-2009 despite significant changes that could have been an audit risk; and
  • the auditor’s reliance on information from Kaipara District Council’s management (which, from our examples above, were also clearly inadequate).

Joel Cayford has written a blog post evaluating the report. He’s gone a step further than the Taxpayers’ Union, and believes that an unreserved apology does not cut it, concluding that the Auditor-General's 'head is on the block'. 

Many audit failures internationally have led to large payouts by audit companies and their insurers to shareholders. Here, the tab was left with Kaipara ratepayers. The report does not address what we think the issue is: redress for the Kaipara ratepayers who paid the bill.

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Friday the last day to get entries in for Auckland rates competition

Entries close tomorrow for our competition for the householder who can provide evidence of the highest percentage increase in Auckland Council rates and user-charges.  The prize is a lawnmower - just perfect for mowing those berms.

At the same time the Auckland Council is reducing services, a quick flick through the 50 or so entries we've have in so far, show many rates and user charge increases well over the 10% "cap".

The terms and conditions are available here.

Please scan and email your entries to tipline@taxpayers.org.nz as any sent by post will no longer arrive in time.

Update: Auckland Council finally responds to allegations of lying about Mayoral trip to China

Well it's taken a few weeks, but Auckland Council has finally responded to the Taxpayers' Union 'please explain' letter regarding a reported instruction by the Mayor's Chief of Staff, Phil Wilson, to refer all enquires about a secret January 2013 Mayoral trip to China to his office, and appears to be a misleading response to our enquiry about the trip under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.

To recap, after a tip-off that there was inappropriate expenditure on a mayoral trip to China in early 2013, we asked the Council for the identify of the person who we were informed was responsible for the spending.  It is our practise to use official information channels and verify any information we receive via our tip-line (or otherwise). We were told that the last trip was in 2012. April 2012.

No mention was made of the early 2013 trip.

As has been widely reported, we now know that the January 2013 did indeed happen.

A few weeks ago we spoke to an official at the Auckland Council who told us that  the Council had misled us and implied that she was instructed that all requests from the Taxpayers’ Union relating to the January 2013 China trip, be directed to Mr Wilson.

But instead of explaining the inconsistency, Mr Wilson has today emailed a veiled threat that our statements are "being monitored and reviewed through legal channels".

We've copied the emails into the post.  Click "continue reading" to judge for yourself.

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Living Wage - higher costs, less diversity, job losses?

We've been looking into the claims by Auckland Council politicians relating to promises of a 'living wage' for Auckland Council employees.

An Auckland Council internal report obtained by the Taxpayers’ Union raises questions about the potential for job losses and casts the $3.75m price-tag for the policy into doubt. 

The Council’s report explains that the living wage is ‘not an effective, general tool for alleviating poverty’ and that ‘large proportions of minimum wage workers do not live in poor households.’

When you put aside the political rhetoric, the economic impact of the living wage policy will be disastrous for low-skilled Council workers, diversity and ratepayers according the Council’s own analysis.

If the Council’s aim is to reduce poverty, the report suggests that living wages for Council employees is not the way to do it.  According to the report, workers aged 15 - 24, women and ethnic minorities are over-represented in the category of people not earning more than $18.40 per hour. Artificially inflating Council wages may see less of these groups gaining future employment with the Council as competition for these positions increase.

In addition to increased competition for Council positions, the report indicates the potential for job losses and shows that workers may see overtime slashed.

The living wage policy will not only burden Aucklanders with higher rates, it also threatens Council workers with the prospect of job losses.  The true cost of the living wage policy may be much higher than the $3.75m quoted in the media.  For example, the Council’s analysis only considers workers within a 10% wage differential.  It has not factored in the potential for a domino effect of wage increases emanating from the introduction of the living wage.

We've uploaded the full report here.

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Are councils fibbing under freedom of information laws?

It appears that the councils of two of our largest cities do not take freedom of information laws seriously. As a constitutional lawyer and advocate for government transparency, I am deeply saddened.

Cost of Wellington City Council’s website - $317,726 or $1.7million? Depends who’s asking…

Last week the Taxpayers’ Union criticised Marlborough City Council for spending $410,000 on web design and development. We made a feature of it on our website and our analysis was even covered in the local paper. We thought the amount was outrageous – ‘$100,000 more than Wellington City’s award winning website’.

We were wrong. Though the Wellington City Council told us it had spent $317,726, it had told someone else it had spent $1.7million on the same wellington.govt.nz site. Though we’ve written (and spoken) to the Council’s CEO, the inconsistency has not been explained. We’ve posted the two information request responses, as well as the ‘please explain’ letter here.

But it gets worse.

We asked Auckland Council about a mayoral trip to China – officials suggested the trip never happened

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