AKL mayor on course to underspend predecessor

1:02 pm on 13 November 2017

Analysis - Auckland's mayor Phil Goff seems to be on-track to deliver on his promise to run a more frugal office than his predecessor Len Brown.

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Auckland mayor Phil Goff. Photo: RNZ / 123rf

While lower staff costs are where most of the savings have been made, some of it can be explained by a change in accounting practices, and maybe that simply less is being done.

Mr Goff has made his own office the example of "more for less" which he hopes the wider council organisation will follow.

On the election trail he called for an across the board cut of 3-6 percent in council spending.

On the Monday after winning the 2016 election he pledged to spend 3 percent less in his office than the average spend of his predecessor across the previous three-year term.

On an apples-with-apples comparison, Mr Goff's mayoral office spent $581,906 between July and September this year, compared with the $756,810 spent by Mr Brown's administration two years earlier when it was in full flight, mid-term.

That's after stripping out the one-off overseas trips taken in both of those three month periods, and also the depreciation and running costs of Mr Brown's personal mayoral car. The car was a luxury which Mr Goff publicly rejected. Sort of.

The car is the start of the differences between the two budgets.

Auckland's mayor is entitled to a car for civic and private use as part of the salary package set by the Remuneration Authority.

Mr Brown had a penchant for black Holden Commodores, with a carbon footprint larger than allowed under council policy.

Mr Goff dismissed the option of a gas-guzzling V6 Calais (retail $66,000) and said he would simply use an existing electric car from the council's own corporate fleet.

It was both an environmental, and frugal statement.

The Nissan Leaf though proved to have too short a range between recharges to get the mayor from his home in rural Clevedon, and then around the region on a tight timetable.

The answer was for the council to add a Hyundai Ioniq to its fleet (retail $60,000) purely for the mayor's use. A change in accounting practices in the council shifted that car's running costs into the council's corporate books.

In 2013/14 the mayoral car's running costs added $27,432 to the mayoral office budget. Not any more.

The main office expense is its staff. The mix of employees, from clerical staff, through policy advisors, to senior specialists is similar to Mr Brown's time.

Mr Goff publicly put out a "please explain" call to the council's chief executive after publicity about the growing number of council staff earning more than $200,000 a year.

Part of the answer is that the mayor's office itself now employs two $200k+ staff compared with one, a year earlier.

The highest paid staffer in Mr Goff's office is paid between $275,000 and $295,000. Another receives between $245,000 and $265,000.

There are three fewer in the $150k-$200k band, and one fewer between $100k and $150k.

One of his staff has a more-generous-than-usual entitlement to six weeks annual leave.

Len Brown at a Council meeting about the Unitary Plan. 10 August 2016.

Len Brown at a Council meeting in August 2016. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Staff numbers overall are similar to Mr Brown's office a year earlier, when he employed 22 full or part-timers, while Mr Goff employs 18. Most of the difference is the dropping of two people who shared the job of being Mr Brown's driver.

In the three-month comparison period, Mr Goff's staff costs were 21 percent lower.

Another difference is the scope of work booked to the mayor's budget.

Mr Brown commissioned, and his office paid for, the first major study on the future of the council-owned port company - the start of a process endorsed by Mr Goff who'd like the port to get off the city's waterfront.

That exercise added $421,000 to Mr Brown's 2014/15 office costs, and will be material should Mr Goff ever make scientific comparisons.

To a certain extent the mayoral office budget is there to be spent well and not necessarily saved.

The Royal Commission which created the original amalgamation concept, and the legislation which brought it into being in 2010, established a semi-independent mayoral office with a budget big enough to develop research or explore ideas.

It set the budget as equivalent to 0.2 percent of the council's overall operating budget, and in each year Mr Brown underspent.

In 2014/15 $4.15 million was available and $3.73m of it was spent.

So far the only work paid for by Mr Goff's office involving significant external costs, is the $39,000 for his mayoral taskforce on housing early this year.

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