This afternoon the Customers, Performance and Resources Scrutiny Committee met to do discuss the overspends made in this financial year so far.
The Council spending is £230 million, and last week we reported that the projected overspend is around at £869k. Today the meeting was told this is under 0.4%, which was described as what ‘Looks like a high figure, but it is a small percentage of our budget’.
Reminding the Councillors of the recent ‘D-Day’ regarding budgets (our report can be read here), the Chairman said: “We will look to start making savings before the start of the next financial year due to the savings that have to be made.”
Cllr Arfon Jones kicked off the debate about parking income, by asking if with increases in charges would the predicted shortfall of £120,000 be filled before the end of the financial year.
The Council Officer told the meeting: “Part of the measures we have identified in the report take into account the changes of the tariffs that will be implemented in February. This is partly why we brought the previous paper through to the Executive Board”. The previous paper being referred to is the one referring to increased charges (read more here).
Cllr Ian Roberts asked about the shortfall in parking, saying that previously the Committee had been told that it was due to enforcement rather than car parking itself.
The Committee was told: “The overspend in car parking is made up of two elements: part is better adherence to parking orders but a part is due to losing income from paying customers.
“The £120k accounts for both elements. The enforcement issue, and it is a trend once enforcement teams get out then start enforcing, then behaviour changes.”
This pointed to a decrease in tickets being issued as parking improves by residents and visitors to Wrexham.
A further query was made asking if the car parks had seen a drop in use. The answer was given that: “The free parking offer that was started around twelve months ago was where the shortfall came from. The occupancy rates are relatively good, and many were above the target level of 85%. We are also looking at shortening the hours free from 3pm rather than after 12pm”
Cllr Mike Edwards referred to ‘easy targets’ in town, saying that as enforcement seems to work there could they now move to outlying areas and villages. The Council Officer replied “Point taken”.
Other elements of overspends were challenged, including school transport costs. Cllr Mike Edwards asked if the additional operating days for school transport could have been foreseen as in essence the are on a normal calendar.
Responsible Officer Darren Williams said: “A lot of the overspends in the Environment Department are due to school transport. I can’t come here and tell you I don’t know whats going on with a calendar”.
To counter any future issues, which appeared to revolve around the timing of Easter, he said: “With hindsight it might be a useful thing to put a proportion of the budget aside for when this quirk appears again.
“The problem for the Environment Department is that we are not always in control of the elements that put demands on the service.”
Planning is another department indicating an overspend, which partially is due to the wider economic context with developments and the like being less common. This in turn at a basic level means there are shortfalls in planning fees, which the Officer present outlined: ”I am happy to wax lyrical about what we have been doing, but if I briefly do that. If you cast your mind back to the good old days (2008ish) £870,000 in planning income. As the recession has deepened, and planning applications have reduced so has our department by 42%.”
“We are now one of the smallest Council Planning Departments in the country”.
It was revealed that the application fee for the proposed prison is £29,000. The meeting was told jokingly that this has had impact on the deficit, however due to the scale of the deficit ‘We really we need around ten prisons’.
The Officer from the Planning Department told the meeting of the balance between monetising the service, saying that they ‘could be cynical’ and invite applications for everything ‘but we don’t do that’.
Concern was raised about the cuts that have been made due to the loss of ‘good calibre staff’, and how if and when things pick up how the Council would cope in future.
Cllr Davies queried the rental increase on Lord St offices, and in response an overview of external rents was explained. These are the main corporate buildings eg. Guildhall, Lord St etc. The meeting was told that ‘uplift on rent is normal in accordance with the leases that was entered into’.
Cllr Morris queried if a re-charge of rents could be made, however it seems changes have been made so this is not how the budgets are arranged for the Council.
Cllr Jones asked the Officer about recharging costs, and asked how come they pick up the costs but not the savings using the former registry services office at Ty Dewi Sant as an example. It was explained that there is a difference between stand alone budgetary services and corporate public offices eg. Lampit St where there is one cost rather than a split between departments that use it.
Cllr Jones observed on this slightly complex issue: “No wonder this bureaucracy is so expensive to run.”
A quick response was given stating: “This reduces bureaucracy really, this method removes the artificial appropriation of costs, and reduces the admin really.”
The Committee queried about a farm being sold recently for around £350,000 and where that cash would be allocated, with the implication that some departments could not be benefiting from their own ‘reshaping’.
The Committee was told: “There is an issue with the agricultural estate which will come to the Executive Board”, with the sale query being answered with ‘money goes into the general fund’.
It was pointed out that ‘all the effort was put in by the department with no benefit’, the Officer diplomatically avoided the implication that his department was missing out and said such capital receipts are simply not allowed to be treated as revenue.
Cllr Jones expressed concern about the time it takes to re-let shops in the town centre in terms of rental receipts. The Officer told the meeting: “Things have changed considerably in terms of the process, to cut out some of the steps, so the proof of this will start to appear now”.
Two further positive bits of information emerged, one comment was made to back up the new process, referring to ‘four market stalls being let last week’, and previously it would be ‘four in four months’. Secondly, information that the Council’s commercial estate ‘makes more money than it costs to run it’, which appears to be positive news.
It was also revealed that Crown Buildings are ‘not required long term’, and is apparently known as the ‘departure lounge’ as teams there often get moved out of the town centre.
As this review is at the half way point in the financial year, Cllr Davies pointed out that last year the 12 month review looked worse than 6 months, so queried if the expectation was the same. Cllr King was hopefully this scenario would not be repeated, and a further review based report will be coming in three months time.
The formal report was accepted by the committee.
There is an ongoing debate on the shortfalls, plus a thread on the overall Council budget that can be found here on the forums…