THE CLOCK is ticking for councillors who have failed to reach agreement on a budget and council tax rise for the upcoming financial year.
Councils in Wales are required to have their spending plans and council tax levels in place by Saturday, March 11 which effectively means the end of the working day on Friday, March 10.
As Monmouthshire council, for the first time, has failed to agree a budget councillors must return to County Hall, in Usk, this Thursday, March 9 for another attempt to pass the cabinet’s spending plans and set the council tax.
That is despite three hours of debate on Thursday, March 2 over plans for a budget with £10 million worth of cuts and a 5.95 per cent hike in the council tax.
A failure to reach agreement would be unprecedented according to the umbrella group for Welsh councils.
Conservative opposition leader, Cllr Richard John, has previously warned failing to pass a budget could see the council become insolvent and a ban on all but essential spending.
The Welsh Local Government Association has said in a situation where a council doesn’t agree a budget public services would continue to operate. The most obvious impact however could be council tax bills hitting doormats later than usual, but the demands would still be issued –eventually.
A spokesman for the association said: “All authorities will be setting a budget by March 9. Any delay might impact on billing but would not impact on services.
“Its unchartered territory, but should this transpire, the authority would have to set a council tax.”
The plan was defeated on the combined votes of the Conservative and Independent groups who had pushed for the extraordinary meeting of the council, warning the original schedule would risk the council missing the legal deadline if no agreement could be found.
But what transpired was something of a Mexican standoff at County Hall where the Independent Group sought to force a vote where the council would agree to order the cabinet to think again but the minority Labour administration held firm in putting its budget forward and challenging the council to vote it down.
The end result however is the cabinet has to come back and again seek approval for its budget.
Independent Group leader Frances Taylor highlighted social care changes, which could see some paying more for care, as unacceptable and said she was unconvinced by the plan to use £1m from reserves so that those changes are delayed by a year.
The Conservatives suggested the council could consider asset transfers, where buildings such as leisure centres or libraries are handed over to community groups to run, and encourage community councils to up their precepts so they could afford to take on more services.
Another suggestion put forward by Conservative Alistair Neill was a volunteering scheme for council employees which he said could provide “thousands of days” of free labour a year, and he said schemes are already running in Caerphilly and Surrey.
“Staff could chose from a variety of options but that should include litter picking,” who highlighted the group’s concern at a loss of the community improvement teams that carry out small jobs from street cleaning to flower planting.
However neither the Conservatives or the Independent Group made any firm proposals or suggested amendments that could be voted on and their position on the council tax rise was also muted.
Conservative Phil Murphy said he noted the 5.95 per cent increase was still in the budget but asked “should it be?” while Cllr Taylor said there had been no reconsideration of the proposed increase.
The council’s deputy leader Paul Griffiths said the cabinet had already responded to concerns as a result of its consultation and claimed opponents were now accusing them of “not knowing our minds and making u-turns”.
He said the challenge facing the council is a five per cent shortfall between the amount its funding, from both Welsh Government and the council tax will increase, and how much its costs will increase.
He said the council is proposing changes to social care “to take control” of a budget that rose by more than £6m in the current year and said some of the Conservative proposals could be considered.
But he said: “Community asset transfers fail when councils try to hand over serious liabilities to volunteers that can’t cope, it can be done but not in a year.”
Despite a lack of clarity over what further concessions the Labour cabinet will make, and what the opposition’s demands are, there is confidence the budget will be passed this Thursday.