Friday, 4 July 2014

Your local authority's accounts - everyone should read them

Scottish Borders Council's unaudited accounts for 2013/14 posted on the authority's website yesterday without a fanfare or even an accompanying press statement, provide us long-suffering council taxpayers with a mass of information about the activities of our elected councillors and staff.

The document extends to 88 pages disclosing a range of spending from the cost of the latest 40 early retirement packages to the salaries of the top brass, the huge sums of money which will be needed to pay for three secondary schools built under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) system and the financial performance of the region's eight Common Good Funds.

Despite the mouth-watering agenda outlined above I very much doubt whether more than a few curious, dedicated anoraks will bother to pore over the tables and accompanying narrative. So perhaps a few 'highlights' chosen at random might persuade you to take a closer look.

The council's revenue expenditure on services during 2013/14 totalled £254.6 million. But spending cuts of £6.3 million were achieved, the council tax freeze continued for a seventh year, and balancing the books in the years ahead will provide "a significant challenge".

David Robertson, the chief financial officer, writes: "The operating environment for the Council continues to be very challenging with financial and economic influences such as welfare reform, increasing demands on services, low interest rates and cost pressures from pay and price inflation all affecting the Council’s finances. The Council despite these challenges remains financially sound and well placed to serve the people of the Scottish Borders in future."

The remuneration report - a section of the accounts dealing with salaries and pensions of councillors and officials - shows 96 employees earned £50,000 or more last year while sixteen senior councillors (apparently we need that many) were paid a total of £341,214 compared to £305,263 in 2012/13.

Those 40 exit packages mentioned earlier cost us a total of £1.063 million. Two of the deals were in the £100,000 to £150,000 bracket and between them totalled £239,558 while the largest individual package added up to £162,874.

The controversial use of PPP/Private Finance Initiative schemes by UK public authorities to fund schools, hospitals and other expensive capital projects is already well documented with massive repayments due over the coming 20-30 years.

Scottish Borders Council entered a PPP agreement in 2006/7 for the provision of three new schools in Eyemouth, Duns and Earlston. The latest accounts show the outstanding sums still due - liability and service charges of £225.660 million plus interest payments of £41.142 million. That adds up to a grand total of £266.802 million. One wonders how those figures compare with the actual value of the three schools.

I hope that by now you're getting an appetite for the document under discussion as I'm running out of space and cannot hope to cover other stuff such as the financial condition of the 289 Trust Funds and endowments, administered by the council and worth between them £2.491 million or the Common Good Funds with combined assets of £9.733 million.

Why not take a look for yourselves and see what we're paying for?

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