January’s Olney Town Council meeting was shorter than usual due to Government guidelines on public meetings, which state that they should only be held where absolutely necessary and where they are held, they should be kept as brief as possible.
The meeting was held in a larger room than normal in the Olney Centre and councillors’ chairs were well spaced out around its perimeter. Here is a summary of proceedings.
The Mayor wished everyone a belated Happy New Year and started proceedings, asking if anyone from the public had anything they wished to say. Mr and Mrs Andrew Prosser from Olney said the pathway that connects Dinglederry to Rivetts Close had collapsed and appeared sunken where there are two traffic bollards. The sunken area is wet and full of leaves and they said they knew of people who had slipped over there. It was only a matter of time, said Mrs Prosser, before someone breaks a hip. Phil Geach said the matter would be referred to Milton Keynes Highways Department.
Mr and Mrs Prosser also noted the dirty state of most of the town’s street name signs and said their son Marcus, also from Olney, would be prepared to get a team of volunteers together to wash them – would that be allowed? Mayor Geach said the idea would be considered and the Clerk would respond accordingly.
Mr Prosser also noted the brightness of the street lights in his road. His house is illuminated by ‘daylight’ lights all night, he said, which even keeps the local blackbirds awake. Could they be turned down at all? The Mayor noted the address and said it would be referred to Milton Keynes Highways Department.
These were received from Chris Tennant, David Pibworth, Debbie Whitworth, Debbie Hall, Jane Varley and Colin Rodden.
The Mayor requested that the minutes from the previous meeting in November (December’s gathering was cancelled due to Covid) be approved by councillors and asked if anyone had any points to raise. There were no points, and the minutes were approved.
The Mayor said there was a draft schedule of forthcoming meetings to be approved. Deirdre Bethune said she would prefer it if the schedule was done half yearly and revisited after the May Annual Meeting. She said that the chairs of various committees might change during the year so it would make more sense to plan later meetings throughout the year. Phil Geach asked if there was any statutory reason why that can’t happen. The acting clerk Sarah Kennedy said that she would look into the options and schedule meetings accordingly.
Ian Stokes asked if some Joint User Group (JUG) meetings could be scheduled in. Phil said the acting town clerk would look into the proposal.
Phil Geach said that the next motion was to approve the Annual Budget and precept for the Following Year. He then invited Ben Brown, Chair of the OTC Finance Committee to speak.
Ben wished to highlight some acknowledgements. He said Sarah Kennedy needed thanks for working on the budget papers over the last few months. It’s been a difficult job, he said, but he believed she had produced a good budget. He also wanted to thank those involved in budget setting last year. It was a difficult time with many uncertainties but it’s a budget that got us through that time with a projected surplus for the year, Ben said, adding thanks to all committees who have fed into the budget.
On then, to this year’s proposed budget. The headline figures show they are projecting an income of £159,640.03 and expenditure of £466,825.49. This means the precept request will be £307,185.46 an increase of 3.4% on last year. Throughout the process, Ben said the feedback he received from councillors and residents was that they need to be mindful of the increased cost of living and to keep any increase in the precept minimal. The increase of 3.4% is below inflation and in line with the council tax increase by Milton Keynes Council.
The headlines from income are that they are predicting slightly increased income this year on the assumption of no further restrictions. We have very generously held rents and rates flat for this year, he said. This includes recreation ground rents, allotment rents, market stall fees and cemetery fees. They have also held flat pricing of room hire at the Olney Centre for local groups. This was a reflection of the feeling that sports clubs, social clubs and residents have experienced difficult times and it would be inappropriate to increase fees at this time. However, it is worth signposting now that having been held for two years, he said, an increase is likely across the board next year.
On income, Ben Brown said that this budget should not stand still. There will be work by the office to look at increasing revenue, particularly for services provided by the council to people outside the town.
On expenditure, the biggest cost as ever is staffing costs, Ben said. OTC are proposing an increase in the staffing budget this year, due to consideration of engaging two additional members of staff. This is in response to increased demand for services. That is a message across all our expenditures, he said, adding that they are seeing increased demand. They have had to increase the budget for dog bins, waste collection at the Rec and also security for the Rec in the summer months.
As with income we’re not standing still and actions will be taken to ensure the public are getting value for money, added Ben. Where grants are available to replace revenue expenditure he will seek to do so.
Reserves currently stand at £251,571. This is broken down as follows:
* earmarked reserves £116,122;
* restricted reserves £75,643.56;
* general reserves £59,806.
As part of putting this budget forward we are proposing that the finance committee urgently review reserves policy which will include reviewing the risk register, making an assessment of assets and making a recommendation to the council for reserves levels, said Ben.
He added that he will also be proposing, as earlier mentioned, that they formulate plans to increase revenue and monitor spending so the projected surplus for 2021/2022 is realised.
Deirdre Bethune asked how Ben’s report states extra staffing when none had been approved. Ben replied that the staffing proposal would go before the HR committee and that to include it in budgeted items was prudent.
Peter Geary said there had been some recent changes to the budget following a meeting last month, and asked what they were. Ben said there was a change relating to refurbishing the Market Place toilets. That was £10,000 and was originally going to come from the reserves but that had now been changed.
Deirdre Bethune said some income had come from the town’s hanging baskets. It’s £1,000 of income, she said. Ben agreed that it was £1,000 of income that they weren’t expecting. Peter Geary asked if the council’s budget would have a surplus or a deficit at the end of the year. Ben said that they were £80,000 better off than they were at the same time last year so they were projecting surplus, but he couldn’t say by how much right now.
Peter Geary said that it’s good practice to monitor budgets throughout the year. It won’t be a straight line, he said, adding that the council should put forward how it wants to spend money. This expenditure is for the good of the town, he said, and if we are not spending it, we are not benefitting the town. Deirdre said the reason why there was a surplus was because of the unusual year last year in which not all the money was spent.
Mayor Geach said that it had been a difficult budget for the committee to prepare during Covid times in which they did not know what was happening in the future. They had no idea on income or expenditure he said, adding that Ben and Sarah had done a great job for which he gave his thanks. The Mayor also acknowledged that the previous Council had set a realistic and prudent budget and thanked the previous Finance Committee and Chair.
Peter Geary agreed that it had been a difficult budget to report on. We look for savings, he said, and we look at extra costs against the things we wish to do.
Trevor Aldred added that he thought they should look closely at the whole reporting process.
Deirdre also offered her thanks and asked if the council accept the budget and the precept budget. Both of these were voted in favour.
The next meeting will be held on Monday 7th February 2022 at 7pm in the Olney Centre. If you would like to contribute to the Public Participation section at the start of the meeting, please contact the Town Clerk: firstname.lastname@example.org
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