Funding cut threatens vital service

MURRAY BOLTON
Last updated 07:50 07/02/2013
Westpac Helicopter
VITAL: The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust provides 24/7, 365-day emergency air ambulance and search and rescue helicopter services.

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OPINION: When the Auckland rescue helicopter service was founded in 1970 it was the world's first civilian rescue helicopter service.

Since then Auckland's population has increased exponentially as has the demand for the service and the costs of providing it.

When one considers that the service has carried out more than 16,000 rescues over the years and that any Aucklander could one day rely on the Westpac rescue helicopter to save his or her life, it is worth reflecting on how the service is funded and the importance of providing funding certainty for its future.

And it is timely to do so, given a significant cut in Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust's ratepayer funding currently being proposed by the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board.

The trust provides 24/7, 365 day emergency air ambulance and search and rescue helicopter services.

It covers all of Auckland as far north as Te Hana and as far south as Meremere, including Coromandel and the Gulf islands.

It also provides inter hospital transfer services from Whangarei, Whakatane, Tauranga, Rotorua, New Plymouth and Waikato hospitals to National Women's, Starship and Auckland hospitals.

Cruising at 222kmh the helicopter can be at Waiheke Island in nine minutes, Piha in 12 minutes and it takes just 25 minutes to get to Coromandel. It routinely responds to emergencies such as allergic reactions, bike accidents, heart attacks, near drownings, head injuries, car accidents, boat accidents to name a few.

When a critically ill or injured patient is rescued and flown to hospital there is zero cost to the patient or their family.

About one-third of the cost is recovered from the district health board, Accident Compensation Commission or the Ministry of Health.

The other two-thirds of the cost is paid by fundraising events, donations and grants from the community and sponsors.

That's where ratepayer funding comes in.

In 2009, under the auspices of the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Act, the helicopter trust and nine other regional amenities received its first ever allocation of ratepayer funds allocated to it by the Auckland Regional Amenities Funding Board.

Our allocation of $1.5 million was gratefully received.

The effect of the act has been to provide regional amenities that all rely on funding from a variety of sources, with some certainty around at least part of their funding on an annual basis.

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That certainty is critical for the rescue helicopter because keeping it in optimum condition, as well as its highly qualified pilots, paramedics and trauma doctors, is a matter of life and death. And the costs are significant.

Despite growing to a two-helicopter service in 2010 to meet the increasing demand, the trust's allocation of ratepayer funding was cut by $300,000 the following year.

Now a further $300,000 cut is proposed, reducing ratepayer funding to $900,000.

The trust stands out as the only regional amenity to ever have its funding cut while all others have enjoyed an increase of funding since 2009.

It doesn't need to be that way and Aucklanders are telling us it shouldn't be.

Research has consistently shown that the public put the rescue helicopter at the top of the list when asked which amenities benefit most Aucklanders and which are most deserving of council funding.

That is once again the case in our recently completed research on the back of the service's busiest holiday period ever.

However what's new and more significant is that many are prepared to see more ratepayers' money spent to see the helicopter and other regional amenities get the funding they need.

More Aucklanders are in favour of an increase in ratepayer funding for regional amenities (46.2 per cent) than opposed (35.6 per cent).

Of those in favour more than 86 per cent suggested the Amenities Funding Board lift the allocation to all regional amenities from the current level of just over 1 per cent to between 1.5 and 2 per cent. If the decision makers followed that cue, the certainty the rescue helicopter needs could be provided without impacting on any of the other amenities.

We are not in the business of questioning the funding of other amenities, merely of securing the funding the rescue helicopter needs to carry out our mission statement: "To ensure that the communities of the greater Auckland region have the security of a professional, efficient emergency air ambulance, search and rescue service available to them."

To provide that security to the community we cannot afford the increased uncertainty that comes with a proposed funding cut.

Will public donations in 2013-14 and beyond match the generous levels of the last few years?

Will the public reach even more deeply into their pockets to cover the shortfall created by the proposed $300,000 funding cut?

Those are questions we simply cannot answer.

Only a reversal of the proposed $300,000 funding cut (which would cost just 64 cents per ratepayer) will provide the essential certainty for future services.

The Auckland regional amenities draft funding plan is currently out for public submissions and closes on February 8.

The Auckland Council will have the final say on whether or not it is adopted.

■ Murray Bolton was a founding trustee of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust and is its current chairman.

- Western Leader

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