Balancing act - council’s 2013 budget

THE council’s books look to be balanced for the next financial year - but their plans could come unstuck according to the unions representing many of the staff.

In December last year Scottish Borders councillors were told how the £3.8 million gap between funding and spending could be plugged - although there was still a further £400,000 of savings to be made to ensure the council was living within its £248.6 million annual budget.

This week council leaders presented the full package of services and savings that will be decided by the council next week, council leader David Parker warning that “we are in a challenging period”.

There will be no council tax increase, no compulsory redundancies, extra money will be made available to cope with social work budget pressures, a living wage of £7.50 for the lowest paid staff will be introduced and teacher numbers will be retained.

But it is the council’s plans to keep their £150 million a year wages bill under control that is proving most controversial.

In reviewing staff terms and conditions, the council’s executive has proposed changes to the employment terms and conditions of new employees, which they estimate will save around £1.2 million a year by reducing overtime and incremental pay increases. And it is this change that has angered Unison, Unite and GMB unions who have joined together to launch a campaign to reverse the council’s proposals.

In a letter to staff the Scottish Borders branch of Unison say that SBC seem to have “unilaterally decided to leave the national bargaining system” adding: “The full proposals have yet to be provided to the trade unions, which begs the question what it was exactly our councillors voted on and why we haven’t been given all the details.”

Unison is warning that the council could be laying themselves open to equal pay claims if new employees are working alongside existing staff and one is being paid overtime for working unsocial hours while the other isn’t.

As well as cost saving measures, the council are also looking at ways of increasing revenue, such as; increased licence fees such as taxi and liquor licences; increased music tuition charges; increased school meal prices, up 10p; increased blue badge charges from £10 to £20 bringing them in line with other councils; and increased Bordercare charges from £2.30 to £2.45 this year and by 5p in each of the following four years.

Accepting that the council will continue to face funding pressures in the future the executive has also prepared a five year revenue spending plan and a ten year capital investment plan.

Councillor Parker said: “I am pleased that we are now able to publish a balanced five year revenue budget, and a capital programme which covers the next ten years. Setting our budget is always a challenge, especially given the continuing difficult economic circumstances. However, I believe we have come up with solutions which maintain this council on a sound financial footing and preserve our frontline services.”

Among the long term investments they are looking at are: £3 million on regeneration (although none is allocated for any Berwickshire projects); a £5 million upgrade of the region’s street lighting with modern energy efficient lamps; £8.4 million broadband improvement; £3.6 million for social work property; £4.4 million for school computers.