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Councillors clash over budget cut proposals – ‘impossible decisions’ to come later this year

A war of words broke out between Executive Board members and opposition councillors this week, who clashed over proposed cuts to local services.

Councillors had been debating the revenue budget plans before they go to full council for further discussion in February.

Addressing the Executive Board on Tuesday, Council Leader Mark Pritchard said he was pleased with the level of engagement in the recent Difficult Decisions consultation, with 3,800 people responding and having their say.

He also explained that the consultation responses and scrutiny committee feedback had been considered to help “enable a safe and balanced budget” for the next two years.

The revenue budget was seconded by Lead Member for Environment and Transport, Cllr David A Bithell, who added: “As the lead member said it has been a difficult consultation process, but I think the budget sets out some clear objectives and supports adult social care and schools.

“There are still some difficult decisions to be made but I am happy to second the recommendations as outlined in the report.”

But Cllr Marc Jones said there were “still problems with the budget proposals” despite Executive Board members listening with “at least one ear to the strong consultation process and scrutiny process.”

He also raised concerns that schools could be forced to axe teaching and teaching assistant jobs due to the financial pressures they face.

He added a pointed attack at some of his fellow councillors: “My concern overall is the young, the disabled and elderly will have to pay full whack and I don’t think that’s fair when the people in front and behind me are not paying their full whack. It’s saying you are going to take a hit and we are going to take a pay rise, that to me is completely immoral.

“I think we have to be very clear that councillors should take the lead and I’m going to be suggesting at full council that we as councillors take that lead and show leadership.

“We should look to cut the members of the Executive Board members to seven, trim the mayors budget, we should not be taking this year’s pay rise or next year’s pay rise, and we should pay for own iPads.”

His comments were met with a round of applause from individuals sat in the public gallery.

Lead Member for Education, Cllr Phil Wynn stated that he had been “equally as concerned as to how schools manage, but fortunately the local authority has put money in to soften the blow.”

Cllr Pritchard described it as a “fantastic story”, although noting that the budget was tight due to UK and Welsh Government decisions: “We went for consultation and the schools were dreading it, me and the board were not happy. We were told it was the budget at the time and we had a better settlement than we thought.

“Would I have wanted more? Lots more, but we have to work with what we’ve got.

“We were close to going into schools and asking them to make serious savings because we didn’t know what money we were having.”

Cllr Alun Jenkins described some as the proposals put forward as “unpalatable” and suggested that next year’s budget consultation is called “impossible decisions”.

However he also challenged proposals to increase Council Tax to 3.9 per cent, suggesting that a rise to 5 per cent would give a “buffer” for the coming years.

Cllr Pritchard defended the 3.9 per cent increase, saying it is a “sensible setting” for Wrexham.

One of the main budget proposals questioned during the meeting was suggested cuts to PCSO funding. During the Difficult Decisions consultation it had been proposed that Wrexham Council cut their share of the PCSO funding by 100 per cent over the next two years.

However this has since been changed, with a £70k in 2018/19 and £70k cut in 2019/20, rather than scrapping the funding altogether in that timeframe.

But Cllr Pritchard pointed out that it was a “mixed bag” of responses to the PCSO proposals, stating that it was around 50/50 in favour of keeping the funding and reducing the funding, voicing some critical opinions put forward on PCSOs.

However Cllr Pritchard’s comments were challenged by Cllr Harper, who said: “Looking at the public consultation on PCSOs, the top response was that they are needed, under than was with the amount of antisocial behaviour and that more PCSOs are required.

“The vast majority are very positive. Only 46 responses that said they are not effective.”

She added: “The response from public wasn’t 50/50, it was overwhelmingly supportive.”

Cllr Jones also suggested that members of the board could vote on taking the PCSO cut from their own wards.

Cllr Hugh Jones reiterated that they have taken the public’s feedback on board and will only be taking £70,000 out of the budget over the next two years.

He said: “The primary responsibility for police services lies with the Police and Crime Commissioners, they have the power to raise the necessary funds for policing.

“Having regard to the issues in Wrexham and having listened to the public, we will uniquely part fund PCSOs and we will continue to do that.

“We are working with North Wales Police to try and achieve a revised policing model. But I come back to the prime responsibility for funding the police service comes with the Police and Crime Commissioner.”

It was suggested by some opposition members that councillors and Executive Board members could go further in their roles to make savings, with Cllr Harper stating that it has “hard to have a moral authority as a board” without taking a hit themselves.

She said: “You’re asking local people to put their hands in pockets but you’re not will to do it yourself with councillor pay rises and Executive Board members”, again with the issue of iPads as a device given to councillors instead of reams of paper raised.

She added: “I am sure other professions such as teachers would find them useful as well. The fact is other professions have to pay for technology, I can’t see why councillors are an exemption.”

Cllr Pritchard hit back at the comments and said that leadership is about “listening to people and not enforcing things on them”, adding that “not everyone can be right on everything”.

He continued: “Before the election you ran a campaign on iPads, I think you were wrong on it.

“You mustn’t want to impose everything on everyone as you morally think we should pay for them.

“Some members feel they have a right to an iPad as it comes as part of the job. We save thousands on iPads from printing and ink and waste.

“Why would you want to have everything printed when you have have 99 per cent electronically, read it and it doesn’t produce waste.”

Cllr Wynn was keen to have his say, angrily pointing out a Plaid Cymru led council up the coast: “As leading light in Plaid Cymru you criticise Wrexham Council for having 10 members, yet you’re silent on Gwynedd which has 10 members.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. It’s double standards you want to score political points”.

With the proposed introduction of parking charges for Blue Badge holders and country park visitors also on the agenda this week, one suggestion put forward by Cllr Bryan Apsley was that councillors contributed £3 a visit to their own car parking, which they are currently entitled to for free.

However Cllr Jones pointed out that £3 a visit for councillor car parking would penalise “those who are more effective and turn up” compared to the members who turn up for “11 per cent of the time for meetings”.

Cllr Pritchard used the opportunity to make reference to the recent pay review carried out by the Independent Renumeration Panel which has put forward a £200 pay increase for all councillors.

He continued: “If any member doesn’t want to take the money, they can contact finance department and can have it removed from the salaries or expenses. I don’t want to force anything on anybody.

“Some members are fortunate and are better of financially than others.

“Some may want not want to hand it and give it to their local charities. I personally give mine to charity.

“For yourselves to continually go on about expenses, I personally think it is personal attack and bordering on the line of bullying.”

Commenting on how he’d only used a minute of the allocated five minute speaking time, Cllr Apsley hit back at the council leader’s comments, stating: “I believe the lead member is totally out of order to mention bullying.

“If anyone is bullying here this morning, it was the response from Cllr Pritchard.”

As that exchange appeared to be heading rapidly downhill the acting chairman Cllr Jones stepped in and moved the meeting along.

Amid the bickering there was also praise for some changes to some of the budget proposals, including the reconsideration of scrapping the bonus payments, which had come under criticism by scrutiny committee members just before Christmas.

It had been proposed that a £4 a day ‘bonus’ payment offered to some vulnerable people as part of the council’s Day and Work Opportunities scheme was to be scrapped to make savings of £26,000.

However it was confirmed last week that the plans to scrap the £4 a day payment had been ‘withdrawn’ by the administration.

Welcoming the change of heart, Cllr Cameron thanked for the board for listening to the feedback and queried if all workers eligible to the £4 payment will now be in receipt of it – as there was an inequitable situation where people on the same scheme would be getting either all or nothing of the payment depending on when they had started.

Lead Member Health and Adult Social Care, Cllr Joan Lowe said she also felt strongly about the proposal that had been put forward and confirmed that payment will “now be across the board”, a position slightly at odds with her previously offered solution to the inequality issue – scrapping the payment for all.

The nine members of the Executive Board present at the meeting voted unanimously in favour to press ahead with the proposed budget cuts, with all 52 councillors having the opportunity to vote on whether the recommendations are finalised at February’s Full Council.

The next meeting will take place on Wednesday 21st February where no doubt alternative budget proposals will be put forward by opposition councillors and further debate on the cuts will take place.

You can read our meeting report on the proposed introduction for Blue Badge holders and country park visitors, here.

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