A LABOUR councillor has been asked if she accepts responsibility for a budget shortfall after last year blaming Conservatives for not upping council tax sufficiently.
Monmouthshire County Council has agreed to use £2.5 million from its reserves as a contingency to meet increased day-to-day spending, with its finance chiefs expecting costs to increase by £2.6 million above what has been budgeted for.
It is the second year in a row the council has found itself staring at a budget shortfall just months into the financial year, after warning in September last year it was facing a £9 million overspend if costs weren’t kept under control.
At that point Councillor Rachel Garrick, who became the cabinet member responsible for finance when Labour took power at County Hall in May 2022, blamed the ousted Conservative administration for failing to generate more money through council tax, with the rise in April last year set at 2.95 per cent.
The Labour-led cabinet has approved her plan take the £2.5 million from reserves, which had been earmarked for meeting the shortfall in funding last year but wasn’t needed as the budget position improved by March this year, and adding it to the £500,000 contingency in this year’s budget to create a £3 million pot to respond to inflation and other unexpected costs. Officers will also be working on plans to rein in spending.
But at the July 26 meeting the leader of the Conservative opposition asked if Cllr Garrick accepted blame now it has agreed to plug a potential budget hole using the reserves for a second consecutive year.
Cllr Richard John asked: “This time last year when there was a similar raid on reserves in the middle of the financial year you said it was because the previous Conservative administration had not put up council tax high enough. But here we are raiding reserves again mid year. So are you blaming yourselves for setting an inadequate budget?”
Cllr Garrick, who increased council tax by 5.95 per cent this year, disputed the term “raiding reserves” and described it as “language I wouldn’t use” but defended her previous criticism of the administration Cllr John had led.
She said: “Clearly in my opinion the previous administration chose to keep council tax artificially low.”
She added that Monmouthshire had a lower charge despite the council being aware of the “consistently low level” of funding the county receives from the Welsh Government due to the amounts it is expected to be able to raise through the council tax.
She further pointed out that the council is developing a medium term financial strategy to fund the aims set out in its community plan and to “safeguard” its reserves so the council is on a “secure, sustainable footing”.
Independent Group leader Frances Taylor said it had set out in March its belief that the some of the council’s total £10 million savings were “unrealistic” – particularly in social care – and asked Green Party councillor Ian Chandler, who was a member of the group at the time, if he “still shares those concerns” now he is the cabinet member responsible.
He said Cllr Taylor was “quite right” that he had been at the “forefront expressing concerns” about the cuts, including to social care, but said the then Labour minority administration had responded to the group’s lobbying, including deferring £1 million of savings in adult social care to the 2024/25 budget.
He said the council is “broadly on track” in making savings to children’s social care, that is despite the high cost of complex places meaning the service accounts for £1.6 million of the expected shortfall. On adult social care the council intends reaching a “fair negotiation” on provider fees and charges and “strengthen reablement services” as a preventive measure.
Cllr Garrick said the council is currently £1.8 million off its £10 million savings target for the year but is achieving some £8.2 million of the cuts and savings it had set out.