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In the past few years, Police Association members have been sounding the alarm that the costs of living in Auckland are becoming untenable.
Members are feeling the squeeze when it comes to rents, house prices, fuel taxes, traffic and travel woes and staff attrition.
Some are choosing to leave the city, but for others that’s not really an option. It’s their home, where they were born and raised, and they are well invested in their communities. Besides, someone’s got to police Auckland.
It’s no secret that rents and house prices are significantly more expensive than in other cities and show little sign of going down in the near future.
If you are not already established in the housing market in Auckland, it appears to be an almost impossible dream, and rents remain unreasonably high, rising faster than inflation nationwide since 2010.
The national median rent for a two-bedroom home is around $395 a week; in Auckland that is $550 a week. Average house prices in Auckland last year were $952,000 (make that more than $1 million for central Auckland). That compares with $565,000 in Wellington and $471,000 in Canterbury.
“On a cop’s salary, that is unachievable,” says a senior constable from South Auckland. “I know that a lot of members say we don’t have to live in Auckland, but this is where people have grown up, have a family and their children are settled in schools.”
A letter to Police News is typical of the exasperation clearly being felt in Auckland. The writer, who has now left Police to join the private commercial sector, said: “I don’t plan or want to end up on a clifftop mansion. I just want to some day own my own home and support my family, and I want to do this without having to live pay cheque to pay cheque. I get the sense that people outside Auckland believe that everyone here is making a fortune from capital gains in the property market. The reality is, we’re not. There are few who have been fortunate enough to have been around long enough to reap the rewards, but the numbers are insignificant compared with the majority of Auckland cops, especially the new ones coming through.”
The reality for some staff is that by joining Police in Auckland and a few other high-cost areas of the country (Queenstown and Tauranga, for example), they will feel disadvantaged by taking employment there.
Already, in the past couple of years, the Association has noted that among the recruit wings coming through the Police College, greater numbers are experiencing a reduction in income (compared with their previous jobs) not only while they are at the college, but on graduation.
Member feedback to the Association shows the perception is that the price of just about everything in Auckland seems to have doubled in the past 10 years, while wages have not.
“People used to joke about cops living at home with the parents, now heaps actually are!” says one member. “And, if that’s not it, they’re living in awkward flatting situations ages away from the station they work in, costing extra in petrol, which keeps going up.”
So should there be an Auckland allowance?
“Yes,” says another member. “It will cost, but hopefully we can retain staff in the job, retain staff in our area instead of training them and then losing them to cheaper areas.”
Some members fear that attrition, currently at almost 6 per cent, is going to jeopardise the promised figure of 1800 extra Police staff over three years.
“We need to stem the attrition rate, particularly in high-demand areas such as Auckland. To do that, we need to pay Auckland-based officers a reasonable wage. It seems unfair that staff in provincial towns get paid the same salary as staff in Auckland when the cost of living is much higher here.
“Such a proposal might fail in a popular vote among members, but sometimes the right decision is not the most popular one.”
A senior sergeant in central Auckland says that after three decades in policing there, he has never seen such a high attrition rate, with many officers either moving to Australia or into civilian roles in Auckland. “Detectives I have known are leaving for better pay and conditions to other government departments or insurance companies.”
There is a lot of talk around the muster rooms about looking for another job. Another cop laments that he has seen “so many friends quit who were bloody awesome cops, all because of the pay”.
Rural stations have allowances to compensate for isolation and costs, so why not Auckland, some members are saying.
In many other police forces around the world, officers in metropolitan areas are paid a higher rate or “weighting” to acknowledge the extra costs of big-city living.
The New Zealand Defence Force has recently moved to address such concerns among its staff and has agreed to an allowance for staff moving into or remaining in more expensive locations and cities.
Increasing living costs are not exclusive to Auckland, and getting on the property ladder can be tough all over the country. If you’re mortgage-free anywhere, you’re going to be better off for it.
“There are many Police staff in Auckland who already own their own house and have for many years, which means they have benefited from capital gains and would again benefit from an allowance, if that was the proposed solution,” writes one member. “Even with the new petrol levy [in Auckland], the petrol price is cheaper there, holidays overseas are cheaper, house furnishings are cheaper and much else as the result of competition pushing prices down.
If Auckland was to get an allowance, then so should Wellington and pretty much everyone else.”
One of the biggest, and perhaps most notorious, Auckland issues is the high volume of traffic and resulting congestion, which affects everyone no matter their financial situation. An eight-hour shift can easily turn into an 11-hour commitment when travel to and from work is added in. It isn’t always possible to live near to where you work, particularly if it’s in the central part of the city.
One young cop travels for an hour-plus to work each way from his home north of Auckland. He admits he feels like “one of the lucky ones” because he and his wife were able to buy a house, but the travel is draining and takes a toll on family life and he would like his commitment to be fairly recognised.
“I must admit, most days I feel tempted by jobs in the provinces where both my wife and I would be paid the same, have next to no mortgage and a great lifestyle. But we care about where we live now and our family and friends are here.”
Others he knows have left Police in search of more money. “I don’t want to be part of the exodus, but if the strain becomes too great on my family, it’s something I will have to consider.”
However, many members can see that an Auckland allowance would be a blunt tool given that the pressures of balancing a budget are felt around the country and not every member of Police in Auckland is struggling with housing or other costs.
So what are the other possible options – and not just for Auckland? Some suggestions include:
• Paying officers for all overtime.
• Targeted accommodation subsidies for those who need it most.
• Flexible working options, such as doing four 10-hour days, thereby reducing the need to travel long distances every day.
• Targeted child support and transport assistance.
There are already cases being reported to the Association of staff pitching in, including district commanders, to help colleagues who are struggling financially. They know that a cop who is under financial pressure at home may find it harder to be at their best at work.
The added inconvenience of working unscheduled overtime, compensated only by TOIL, does not help anyone’s finances, so there could be room for improvement there.
Many members lament the control that Police has over their ability to earn additional income, with secondary employment options such as working on licensed premises, commercial driving and security work being off-limits to Police staff.
Police Association president Chris Cahill says all these options may have to be considered and deployed to make progress in alleviating the big-city Auckland blues.
“Auckland affordability is such a big issue it cannot be solved in a pay round, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from targeted assistance for those members most in need and, to that end, all possible options will be explored,” he says.
“Some things may be able to be addressed in the pay round, while others will be longer-term solutions.”