The warning in the headline is sent by Auckland Councillor Cameron Brewer to another area struggling with whether or not to amalgamate, Hawkes Bay, where five small councils are considering a merger. The local paper, Hawkes Bay Today, asked Auckland Councillor Brewer to sum up the Auckland amalgamation after his four years in office. What he has to say pretty well accords with my own experience of the monolith.
Auckland's experience of amalgamation has been a mixed bag. It came with its own specific legislation so is somewhat different but nonetheless there are things to watch out for and lessons to learn.
Four years on and ratepayers are still waiting for Mayor Len Brown to deliver the cost reductions and increased efficiencies promised in the lead up to 2010.
Critics consistently point to skyrocketing debt and that elected representatives now struggle to influence both big and small decisions.
Auckland's seven Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs) which look after key assets and infrastructure are now so powerful they have become a force unto themselves - sometimes competing with council rather than working for it.
Earlier this year CCO Waterfront Auckland revealed plans to install a $1.5m 'state house' sculpture on Queens Wharf with almost no elected representative support and a largely disgusted public. Despite a human outcry Waterfront Auckland is set to advance this project. This is just one small example of how the public and politicians have lost control of many daily decisions now being made. Effectively we sign off an annual statement of intent for each CCO and then they disappear and do the business.
The advantages are local body politicians can't meddle. But again the flipside is non-elected CCO boards are now calling many of the shots in Auckland.
Unfortunately it has not just been councillors who have been side-lined with Auckland's corporate model in place. Many of our 21 local boards are furious with the lack of control they have on their own drastically reduced budgets. While legislation talks of a shared governance structure, the reality is anything but. Many of the outlying areas think the Mayor and council is too CBD-centric. They see their local initiatives getting deferred while often pet projects in the city centre get priority.
Aucklanders were promised that amalgamating eight councils into one unitary authority would enable the region to do "more stuff with less staff". However recently I released the latest staff numbers and costs which show they have in fact ballooned beyond imagination. Since 2011 total staff numbers, including the CCOs have increased from 9,300 to 11,134 while at the same time our annual wage and salary bill has jumped from $615m to $730m. We now have nearly 2,000 staff earning over $100,000 and these numbers exclude the additional cost of hiring an army of consultants and contractors.
Smaller councils are often restricted in how much they can borrow due to their limited revenue streams and rating base. However in Auckland once we amalgamated our ability to borrow opened right up. Our debt will hit $11b in the foreseeable future. We started with less than $4b, and we're now paying over $1m a day in interest alone.
Management's argument that the organisation continues to make big savings in its running costs since amalgamation carries no meaning for many ratepayers who have endured compounding rates increases of over 20%.
Spin about supposed savings counts for little given we're spending, borrowing, rating and charging fees like never before.
Rest assured many have been keeping a close eye on the Hawkes Bay proposal since the Local Government Commission received for and against submissions earlier this year.
The Commission is expected to report its findings soon which will hopefully encourage more of you to get involved on how your towns, cities, and beautiful region should be run. Whatever those findings deliver, just make sure you don't remove the 'local' out of local government in Hawkes Bay.
By the time we get rid of Brown it will be too late to save Auckland from the train wreck it has become. Rather than achieving his goal of making Auckland the world's most 'liveble' city, he is turning a beautiful city into one of the world’s most unlovable.