Whenever I bump into people I know, the first question I get asked is, ‘How’s the Local Board going?’ My answer is always a bit cagey, because being on the Local Board is a huge privilege and something I really enjoy, but it’s also a massive frustration. As elected members we’re given the opportunity to enable amazing things to happen for the people in our community, but when the concept of ‘amazing things’ differs from person to person that sit at the table, my idea of a good opportunity can pretty quickly slip through my fingers, and I hate to say it, but the older set are the ones that get what they want more than us “younger ones” (read middle-aged & in the thick of the family stage).
The August Local Board Business Meeting, for me, was a great example of this. It was a good representation of how proper process and advice can be ignored, resulting in poor decision making. Who loses out? You. Me. Our neighbours. Our friends. Our community.
In this month’s meeting our job was to approve the annual work programme: it’s all the work budgeted to be achieved in our area for this financial year. As a Local Board we workshop the programme (multiple times), juggle the numbers, and receive guidance and insights by various subject matter experts who know what’s happening on the ground. Weirdly though, in this business meeting, all that previous work, all those meetings and expert guidance got thrown out the window as members of our Local Board dropped three environment and family-focused activities in favour of stuff that we were clearly told were an unnecessary spend of our rate payer dollar.
Of the 21 Local Boards ours spends the least amount of budget on environmental initiatives. Through public consultation we heard loud and clear that the community wants to see this change. At the beginning of the term the new Board stood united in their intention to respond to this issue. We were presented with some fantastic options that included a Bike Hub feasibility study, that would soon pave the way for a hub in our area, and an Eco-neighbourhoods project that would aim to support community resilience and low-carbon lifestyles. Along with Movies in the Park (another family appropriate and much-loved event) these new projects were ditched at the eleventh hour.
To fill you in on the details, there are 3 Bike Hubs in Auckland: Henderson, Massey and New Lynn and each hub has had on average 4250 people making use of the service each year. The intention is to get more kids on bikes, more people in the community with skills to maintain their bikes, and more bikes diverted from landfill. Bike hubs give those less privileged in the community access to super cheap serviced bikes (about 10% are gifted to those that need them), and mechanical skills are gained in an easy-going and inclusive environment. It provides opportunities for inter-generational connection as older volunteers support the operation by servicing the bikes and teaching important skills to young children. Funding the feasibility study was important for us to start the ball rolling, because we all know good things take time. It was only $10,000. Sadly however, it’s now dead in the water.
The eco-neighbourhoods programme is a fantastic initiative that encourages community connection and resilience. It’s been running for 5 years in the Albert-Eden local board area with 93% of participants expressing a desire to continue it beyond the programme. Eco-neighbourhoods bring like-minded neighbours together to learn new sustainable skills and share resources with one another. Examples of success can be found in neighbourhood food swaps, neighbourhood chicken coops, communal vege gardens, neighbourhood pollinator pathways, and loads more. In a time where neighbourhood connection and food resilience is important, this proposed project would have been widely taken up. Cost was $30,000. Sadly however, it’s now dead in the water.
The last intended activity that had been included in our work programme was Milford’s Movie’s in the Park which too, got the chop. ($15,000 event delivery cost).
So with the $55,000 budget clawed back, where did it go?
It went to topping up the hours of Takapuna Library to its current level of service. All libraries across Auckland are funded to be opened 56 hours each. The DTLB has historically topped up those hours by adding an additional 2 to Devonport Library and 4 to Takapuna to create a late-night Thursday. We are one of the few Local Boards that do this, and we are the one that invests the most in those additional hours. When we workshopped this, the Head of Community Libraries provided us with the hard data that those late-night hours simply weren’t being used in a valuable way. Visitation dropped from an average of 49 visitors per half an hour to 18, and at the cost of approximately $10,000 per hour per annum, this was not an effective spend of taxpayer dollar. Instead in our workshop we had in theory agreed to 2 additional hours in Devonport and 1.5 in Takapuna and 8 x 3hour study nights for students when exam time rolls in. This would have saved $30k to put to other projects, like the environmental ones that would meet the needs of more people in our community.
The other place where money was topped up was in our resilience planning for Civil Defence. Following what has been a challenging year it became apparent that the Local Board needs a clearer road map to respond to our community in times of crises. When we’re locked down, there are many vulnerable and isolated people in our community who need to be considered and responded to in a more localized way. Our support staff had scoped a programme that would complete a resilience plan. It would be the first step and the investigation would include a summary of next steps. It was going to cost $4000. Some of our members felt this wasn’t enough money, despite being informed it was. Attaching additional budget is a poor decision unless we’re given clarity on what that money will achieve – what are the deliverables, and who is doing the delivery? The advice we received was that “no further LDI operational funding is required for this project. If additional funds were allocated at this phase of the work programme process, they will unlikely get spent.” And yet, four members of the LB voted to increase the $4,000 to $30,000.
Now, you may think the Local Board had to make some hard decisions, pitting one priority against the next. You’ll hear members say that budgets are so tight not everything can be achieved. This is a red herring. You see, in our limited budget we have also set aside $249,000 for contestable grants. Grants are an important part of the budget because they allow community groups to deliver fantastic events and programmes for their community. I know its value, because I’ve been a recipient of those grants for the Devonport Arts Festival in the past. But our grants budget is big. It’s 20% of our Locally Driven Initiative budget and is far in excess of other Local Boards. (ie. Henderson-Massey, a local board with double our population allocates 7%). It was possible for our Local Board to keep all these projects in the work programme, top up the library hours, throw more money at Civil Defence resilience and still have a massive $194,000 in grants. So, when you hear members decry that there wasn’t enough money to do it all, don’t be misled. There was, there is. They simply decided that these projects were not valuable enough to them to have delivered in our Local Board area.
But when your voice is a minority at the table, it counts for nothing. I’m sad that we’ve lost those projects. That, to me, was a missed opportunity and I believe it’s time to question whether decisions being made are primarily to ensure the status quo, or are actually responding to the demand for change?
Elected member of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board for the 2019-2022 Election Term.