Range Of Questions Posed By Scrutiny Over Council’s Budget
A Council Scrutiny Committee today asked questions of the Council’s accounts, picking up on a school transport budget issue and ‘reshaping’ issues.
The report (PDF here) being debated covers the run down of the Council’s Fund revenue accounts for 2014 to 2015, and proposals to place surplus funds into reserves. Final decisions are taken at Executive Board, but today’s Customers, Performance, Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee got to probe the numbers and ask questions.
Council Leader Pritchard was due at the meeting, but was apparently up the coast, so Cllr Hugh Jones stepped in jokingly saying he was ‘happy to be the dartboard’.
A meeting earlier in the year was told the numbers today would have roughly balanced out, however they have ended up with an underspend on budgets of £1,950,000. This was contextualised by future multi million pound savings being made and the steps being taken, the meeting being told by Council Officer Mark Owen: “Clearly you can’t turn the tap off on the 31st of March, you have to plan for that. Planning took place for a difficult 2015/16 and will make savings and they have already started to be implemented.”
Mr Owen added a sentiment echoed by those present, saying he was ‘proud’ as ‘all areas of the council have worked stringently and come in under budget’.
School Transport – Where should the budget be?
Members of the committee asked several questions on areas that they felt were unclear, or just wanted further details on. The largest debate took place on the £667,000 overspend on the School/College Transport service which is currently under the Environment budget, and the Schools underspend of £719,000.
Several Councillors felt that the two ought to balance out with the budget being placed in the wrong department.
Cllr Pemberton specifically noted that cuts had been made to transport as ‘we were told schools could not afford it’ then cited the underspend saying it ‘peeved’ him.
The Officer told the meeting that the budget underspend would not be relevant as the costs are not relevant to that specific per-school budget, and said there would be more savings made as ‘there is work ongoing by the council reshaping partners making savings in the transport element’.
Other information hinting at the future of school transport was offered to the meeting, which was told: “Fundamentally there is an issue with the transport budget, there are some areas due to demographics that our supply is being outpaced by demand. For example special education transport is a significant pressure.”
Cllr Dana Davies cited growing birth rates in Wrexham and schools ‘filling up’, warning ‘we are not coming up with a service for the future’.
Cllr Mike Morris offered one simpler solution, that one department commission the service from the other.
It appears there will soon be clarity, possibly as early as next weeks Executive Board, on where the school transport budgets will sit in the future with Cllr Hugh Jones saying: “The question of where the budget sits will be resolved fairly soon”, reassuring members this was ‘active on the agenda’ and ‘close to being sorted out’.
Council Over Claiming Benefits?
The Chair of the meeting Cllr Steve Wilson asked for clarification on an item on the report regarding a half million pound provision following a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) letter.
Clarity was given with the meeting told: “The DWP have an audited return from us in relation to benefit payments they make. At Government level they go through it, which takes a long long time, and if there is a query, it takes even longer.
“We had a letter from DWP raising some issues on the 2013-14 claim and we need to sit down and go through with the auditors in detail. We are making an assessment that the issues were upheld and if they were rolled forward to 14/15 year the overclaim could be £520,000. When the accounts come to you for the final sign off we will know what the position is.”
The meeting was told this was not the ‘worst case scenario’ rather a ‘best assessment’, as “to get the information out requires the supplier of our system to do more work”.
Planning – No Second Prison
Councillor Morris probed the Planning related elements in the report, namely asking if the one off large Prison application fees would mean next years budgets would be affected, and if any money was being put aside for the Local Development Plan (LDP) due to the underspend made.
In terms of the future budgets the meeting was told the 15/16 budget target will be ‘slightly higher to reflect, not the big applications, but there is a buoyancy on applications coming through’.
On the second point the meeting was told there was no request for a ‘carry forward’ from any department aside from Legal, and there is already a £270k pot for the LDP. A report was cited where costs of the LDP were given as under that figure, so no further reserves were required for the LDP.
Amusingly Cllr Morris did state there would not be another large planning application for a second prison, mainly due to there being ‘no land left’ on the Industrial Estate.
Legal Staffing Issues
A £47,000 overspend is noted under ‘Legal and Democratic’, an issue that was picked up by a few Councillors who were concerned about the ‘lack of staffing’ in the relevant departments creating delays and then knock on issues. Cllr Pemberton cited an issue in Rhos where legal delays caused problems, and another saying “We all have issues where we are waiting on legal documents”.
Cllr Jones fed back: “We have had discussions with the legal department, we have tried to put work to Flintshire but they are overloaded. We will have to use private firms of solicitors to help with the work. We need to do the work in a timely fashion or we will lose credibility.
Cllr Jeffares suggested getting ‘one or two more hands in rather than outsourcing’, prompting Cllr Hugh Jones to respond: “We might not need certain expertise five days a week, so might be cheaper to buy that in from private sector or other authorities.
Dana Davies challenged that reply saying: “I thought the purpose of reshaping services was to get that expertise in that you are talking about. I am surprised we are three years down the road on reshaping and we have not done it on the departmental areas that would be easy to do.
Cllr Jones replied: “It is important to understand some of these pressures are transitory for example community centres, once they are gone they are gone. Its a fine line of balancing of expertise of what you need at the time, and keeping people in post where you don’t need that expertise.
“Twenty years ago you would go to your family solicitor who would be all encompassing, now you go to the family firm and there is a range of expertise. Law and the practice of the law has changed significantly.”
Cllr Davies was still unhappy, noting: “We were talking about this two and a half years ago, looking at more regional view on legal and HR. none of that has started to be put in place.”
Cllr Dana Davies queried why £74,000 was being placed in a legal reserve and what the spending has been historically.
The response given was: “As we have dealt with all claims there could be some legal costs coming through. In terms of what is spending, we have to be aware of any potential liabilities. It is useful to have a reserve just incase.”
Cllr Davies went on: ” There is over £400,000 in there at the moment, are we projecting our liabilities above that? In the current climate why are we pushing so much into it? Money seems to be going into pots, does that pot need £74,000?
The Officer’s reply was “There is a section in the accounts on ‘critical judgements’ on things that may well materialise, and there are some biggish ones in there, and there are no other resources tucked away to meet those. When we have had the workshops on the reserves the legal liability one has been flagged up as one to be kept topped up.
“In terms of using reserves to help with our savings, we need to use reserves as one off things, and with £45m savings on recurring budgets we should not be trying to prop up services with reserves as we will come unstuck down the road.
“This has been tried elsewhere and is known as a ‘lifeboat’ approach by other councils, where you supplement areas for one or two years. The austerity is likely to carry on for a few years so there is no ability to find extra resources. The stuff we are putting away is not large in terms of balances. We are one of the lower authorities in terms of our reserves.”
There was an interaction between the Chairman Steve Wilson and Councillor David J Griffiths on what the overspends meant in terms of future budgets, and if that meant future years could start from a deficit position or not. The Chair told Mr Griffiths (and the meeting) that every department starts with a ‘clean sheet’, finance wise.
Councillor Mike Edwards invited further work on the reserves saying: “We need more information backing up the reserves to see where we are”, and was told there is an All Member Workshop in October covering just that.
Making Hay While The Sun Shines
Cllr Davies carried on the scrutiny, posing the question that with (roughly) £2,000,000 of ‘outturn’ or excess over the last two years would it not be more sensible to put it towards the larger savings rather than ‘divving it up’. Cllr Davies cited last year’s money being placed in the ‘reshaping’ budget, and this years going to the three reserve areas as well as highways and pavement maintenance, “How are we going to get to £15m when we have underspends and are not offsetting it against what we need at the end of the year?”
Referring to the Council Plan’s priorities Officer Mark Owen replied: “We need this resource to push the changes forward that our reshaping partners are working on. There are clearly major changes that will require one off input, be it exit costs.” Consultation was also mentioned, with Highways and Footpaths scoring highly when the public was asked about what they rated as highest priority.
Other questions were also asked on Recyclate, Adult Social Care, and Community Centre closures. The latter having an example of business rates still being paid, with Councillor Hugh Jones saying a ‘new policy’ will come in on how to deal with such issues.
Cllr Morris also made a note about a 11% budget change in St Pauls Isycoed, stating that the excess money was due to a back payment from the Council itself to the school for a air monitoring unit which keeps an eye on the Industrial Estate. Therefore his point was, do not give it in March and take it away in May!
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