We are very pleased to say that a balanced budget has now been set for the coming year despite all the financial problems the Council has had, including the pension costs error which left an annual £920,500 gap in the finances. This was discovered just after the Independents and OLRG Alliance took over as a minority administration last May.
Balancing the budget has been one of the most difficult issues we have faced and there is still a way to go in achieving the necessary savings over the next few years to keep the Council solvent and sustainable.
For info, the budget statement made by Independent Cllr Kevin Bourne is at item 5.9 on this link (starts at 1:4:30) click here
In recent years, the Council has used up large amounts of its reserves on the Local Plan (£3m plus) and on a change project called Customer First which cost a lot more than planned. There has also been a continual reduction in support for local authorities from central Government which has further eroded financial resilience.
This has meant setting a balanced budget required at least £1.7m of savings. The big question was how could the Council, with an annual budget of just £11m, survive that scale of financial challenge?
We were determined from the start that increasing fees, such as car parking charges in Ellice Road, or cutting funding to groups which support residents were not on the agenda. In any case, that route would have done little more than tinker round the edges of the problem. The only real option was a root and branch review to reshape and slim down the Council and ensure expenditure no longer exceeds income.
That assessment exercise is now well underway. So far, the best part of £1m in efficiency savings has been found with more than 20 measures. A few examples: better control of spending on external contracts and consultants, reviewing vacant posts and deleting those we could manage without, improved debt-collecting, renting out surplus space at the Council offices in Oxted.
Some of the decisions to get the finances back on track are difficult ones and there is no doubt that by the end of the process, it will be a leaner Council. We have very much in mind the need to focus what resources there are on the services that matter most to residents.