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.