Sunday, October 15, 2006

Fullers woes

With fuel prices locally at almost year lows due to a combination of lower world market prices and a higher New Zealand dollar against the greenback, private car users have been reaping the benefit of lower prices at the pump. $1.47 a litre is well down from $1.76 only weeks or months ago. So everybody has been climbing into their cars again, since public transport companies have been steadfastly refusing to lower their fares, as you would expect since they earlier raised prices due to fuel cost increases.
I wrote to that effect to the local island newspaper, which published my letter as the leading entry on the letters page - thank you very much, Simon - and sent a copy to Fullers Ferries for a reaction:

Now that the diesel price is back where it was 12 months ago, can we expect a commensurate drop in the ferry fare prices in time for October (hiked because of fuel price increases, according to your literature at the time)?

It took Acting Operations Manager Michael Fitchett six days to reply. And unfortunately I can't tell you what he wrote back, due to Fullers communications policy "to freely respond to questions in a confidential manner with customers".
That's a pity. But in short the reply was that the diesel price reduction has not been that dramatic it would impact on fares and they didn't know where it would go in the future (and hence, I presume, it's better to hedge your bets on your side of the balance sheet than on the side of your customer).
So in all, public transport prices only go up. They will only go down if faced with competition and that is, helas, not on the horizon for our island service.

The public transport gods have been particularly cruel this last week. Five of Fullers vessels are currently out of service for various reasons, including annual service and general engine failures, resulting in chaotic timetabling, lateness in arrivals and departures, and plenty of irate passengers who were denied boarding on several occasions as far too small vessels have to do commuter runs they were not designed for.
Even the "Ferry Users Group", memorably described by one of my fellow commuters as a floating Rotary Club, not normally known for militant or even slightly disrespectful criticism, pointed to a less than satisfactory maintenance regime at Fullers. Abject abuse of monopoly while running your resource into the ground is what I would call it.

I can't feel sorry for Fullers since I'm still expected to pay a first class fare for a cattle class service - and guess who will be paying for all the repairs and necessary future fleet upgrades?

UPDATE 26 October: The Waiheke Gulf News reports Fullers will give us a $50 discount on November's monthly passes (normal price $300) for putting up with the inconvenience. Pity that can't be made permanent since the diesel price has come down by that amount.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Economic cleansing of Waiheke

The island natives have become restive this year, what with the property revaluations and ferry fares increases.
On Sunday a group of pensioners organised a public meeting on the local rates issue. Our feudal overlord, Auckland City Council, is quite happy with extracting extra pounds of flesh from islanders, because the islanders have been frugal and industrious in doing up their hovels and have made the island so attractive that newcomers have been pushing up island property prices at a rate twice the average of the city.
The city sees this as a valid and legal excuse to tax islanders for a much higher amount because:
- we're all rich islanders, coastal property owners and multi-million dollar vineyard businesses who should be made to subsidise the lifestyle of mainland city dwellers;
- it wants to finance its commercial activities on the island (such as car parking fees) from rates money because the income from car parking charges doesn't cover costs. (This is due to a parking boycott by islanders who rightly resent being made to pay twice for what was previously free.)
- the mayor claims that for every $1 extracted from Waiheke, the Council spends $3 on the island.

The mayor says he's sympathetic with our plight, especially the elderly on fixed incomes who have been living on the island for generations and are now caught up in the property boom, causing their bach value to go from $10,000 to several hundreds of thousands, without even installing a walk-in shower.
But this sympathy is, of course, baloney.

The city is reluctant to give an exact breakdown of those cross-subsidy figures because they are all smoke and mirrors, as befits a local territorial authority exempt from any transparancy or accountability obligations.
What exactly does the city give islanders to warrant a rates bill of over $1,500 a year?
We get: free gas barbecues on the beach (also free for off-islanders); a library service (which is actually very good); street lighting (sparse because the locals like dark streets); foot path and road construction (at such glacial pace that they never keep up with newly emerging potholes).
All other Council services are "user pays", e.g. "commercial" (planning permission for anything you want to do on your property, rubbish collection over 52 bags per year, ferry car parking, ferry wharf use). The costs of these Council services are recovered, so, in theory, no rates money should be reserved for capital investment and the running of the Council's commercial activities - which means Matiatia's recent $12 million purchase should not be included in the "subsidy" the Council gives the island.
Not a squeak yet from our sole representative on the Council, Faye Storer. I guess she's too busy furthering her career on the mainland in other areas of Council policy, or travelling overseas to be much bothered - well, I guess it must be difficult to resist the greedy eyes of the other Councillors if you're in a minority of one.

The other attack on island life is from a private monopoly, the Fullers ferry service.
It raised its fares by about 15 to 20 percent this month, after a 10 percent rise last September. As the monopoly transport provider by default and unencumbred by public accountability (it refuses to accept subsidies because they would cramp its ability to provide a service they see fit rather than what passengers would like) it raises prices and lowers levels of service at will.
In its pamphlet to passengers, distributed a day before the price hikes, outlining their reasons it mentions diesel price increases and flat passenger demand over the past three years. This causes hollow laughter in anyone who has visited Waiheke over the recent holiday period and had to suffer overloaded boats and even being denied boarding on certain days.

No, the real reasons are:
- we charge more, because we can;
- we provide a cattle class service at first class prices, because we can;
- we set all conditions and levels of service at the lowest setting possible, because we can.
You can't fault a monopoly to gouge its customers, that's the name of the game, so good on them for having us on - any other company in the same position would do the same thing. But does it need to involve that amount of hypocrisy? Why not tell us to our face?
One of the main culprits in this deplorable situation is the Auckland Regional Transport Authority, which prides itself to be the policy setter for public transport in Auckland. It has consistently refused to intervene or play its proper role of ensuring a commercial level playing field to foster competition.

It all calls into question why Waiheke Island should remain a part of Auckland City or the Auckland region. Time for independence, methinks.