This year’s Saffron Walden Town Council budget planning has reminded me of the old quip, that
“A budget tells your money where to go rather than wondering where it went”
As Chair of the SWTC Property Services & Finance Committee, it became apparent from late May 2015 that the previous budget was woefully inadequate. At each Property Services and Finance Committee meeting, we were attempting to pay for necessary and committed services from “reserves” or unallocated budgets.
Whilst I concede that you cannot anticipate every cost a year in advance, the whole point of budgeting is to prepare for known costs and to try and anticipate foreseeable expenses wherever possible. One option is to allow for contingencies and to be sure to build in a basic reserve to ensure stability.
What actually happened was like walking across a stream on very shaky stepping stones just hoping that they all bear the weight.
What were the challenges?
The problems were complex and of course we’ve all been through often turbulent financial times in the last 8 years. I’m sure we all had the best intentions. But the absence of some specific “known” line item allocations, and worse, not providing adequate reserves is not really excusable. Our operating procedures actually call for a three year budget and although this might have been considered, no future budgets were available to the Town Council finance staff.
As councillors we were elected and tasked with managing residents’ hard earned money, to manage a growing town prudently, responsibly and with a view to optimising all our assets. By way of example, a major asset of the Town is the iconic Town Hall. It’s a beautiful, old historic building at the heart of the town. But as with all old buildings, it needs constant maintenance and like all maintenance, neglect usually results in bigger bills.
This is a dilemma that confronted previous councils but seems to have been discussed and avoided for too long. Today we find ourselves with an asset seriously in need of refurbishment and the costs are no longer avoidable.
We have put off too long the necessary maintenance and must now face the consequences.
What does a budget process look like?
So against this perfect budget storm of budgetary and asset neglect we were required to build an honest and prudent budget. We started as one does, with a full assessment of demands. Already at that stage, politics took hold and accusations of budget excess were made. Not the best way to work together to face our common challenges. But we persevered and over a number of meetings and cross party debates we address, line by line, the minutiae of the new Saffron Walden Town Council budget.
Arguably, political debate has a valid role in keeping the leaders on their toes but when a community faces a serious challenge such as this years budget, it needs to be put aside and all skills and resources ought to be focussed on solutions rather than petty point scoring.
I am rather pleased and just a bit relieved to say that together we are arriving at what promises to be the first collaborative, five year budget with a distinct focus on maintaining assets, allocating resources to all known expenses and gradually rebuilding our reserves to acceptable levels. All the time with a view to limiting the impact to residents by spreading the increments. Our target of not exceeding a 50p per week increase* has been met and, barring any major catastrophes, increases over the next 3 years should be limited to a maximum of 2%pa.
It is hoped that this new and more prudent approach to budgeting will allow us to decide where our residents money needs to go and avoid us in future from asking what happened to it.
*For a Band D Taxpayer