OPPOSITION councillors have been blasted on the eve of a crunch budget meeting for “avoiding” talks with the cabinet member responsible.
All members of Monmouthshire County Council will have their say on the proposed budget at the full council meeting at County Hall, in Usk, at 10am on Thursday, March 2.
The budget sets out how the council will spend £224 million over the next year, as well as a revised programme of cuts and savings reduced from £11.4 million to £10 million. It also includes a proposed band D council tax increase of 5.95 per cent, which must also be approved by a majority in the council chamber.
The minority Labour administration, which is one vote short of controlling the council, had already agreed to opposition demands to bring the budget vote forward by a week.
If the Labour cabinet’s budget isn’t approved at Thursday’s meeting senior councillors and officers will have just a week to come up with alternatives that are acceptable to most councillors.
But when the cabinet met on Wednesday evening, and agreed its final proposals, the councillor responsible for finance hit out at opposition leaders.
Cllr Rachel Garrick said along with a public consultation, that included meetings across the county and online, and attending formal scrutiny committee meetings her “door was open to any councillor” to meet with her.
She said: “It’s disappointing to know that beyond initial discussions with one group these have been actively avoided and leaders have specifically said they will not talk to me as the portfolio holder.”
The Caldicot member said councillors have a “duty” to those who elected them to help work towards setting a budget and she hoped that “will weigh heavily on councillors” on Thursday.
The council has two opposition groups, the 18 member Conservatives and the six strong Independent Group and Conservative leader Richard John was in attendance at the cabinet meeting but didn’t directly respond to Cllr Garrick’s comments.
As a result of the consultations its proposed the council use an additional £1 million from reserves support adult social care this year – so that planned changes can be delayed for a further year – and changes such as scraping a plan for early closing times on leisure centres and a subscription fee for the Grass Roots community transport service are also set to be dropped.
Council deputy leader Paul Griffiths said he didn’t feel there are any alternatives to the budget the cabinet is recommending.
He said costs are increasing by at least 14 per cent, due to inflation, and even with additional funding from the Welsh Government and the 5.95 per cent council tax rise it is facing a real terms cut of at least five per cent.
“In all honesty I can’t see any better way of squaring that circle before us. It hasn’t been easy for us and will not be easy for our staff who go into next year expecting more demand on services all around them while the real value of their budgets are being cut,” said Cllr Griffiths.
“We shouldn’t shy away from saying to our citizens it will not be easy for them.”
The Chepstow councillor added: “I think this is as good as it gets and I take pride in being able to offer this budget to the council.”
Cllr John said he welcomed some of the changes to the original proposals but questioned how the amendment that a £1 charge to attend school breakfast clubs is doubled only for one child, in a family of more than, will work in practice.
The Mitchel Troy and Trellech councillor asked: “I feel it’s very unclear. If a family has three children who will pay, it’s not clear, what if one child is ill who will pay in that situation?
“I feel you’ve made a knee jerk decision to a reaction to a bad decision, might it not be easier to ditch the bad decision?”