Burnham and Highbridge Town councillors have this week approved £13,217 of spending for local election costs and footfall counting equipment following a heated debate.
At an extraordinary full town council meeting held on Tuesday (August 13th), councillors considered virements of £9,633.74 from ear-marked reserves to pay for May’s local elections, and £3,584 from ear-marked reserves for footfall counters in Burnham town centre.
The meeting comes just two weeks after a previous extraordinary full town council meeting to approve £12,000 of upgrades to The Princess Theatre from ear-marked reserves.
Cllr Helen Groves said at Tuesday’s meeting: “I am really confused by this. I don’t understand why we are having an extraordinary meeting to deal with it. I don’t understand why it isn’t being dealt with in the way it has been handled previously with normal meetings and normal budgeting. How has this broken down that we are having to deal with it in such a way, with no reports to tells us anything ahead of the meeting?”
Cllr Phil Harvey added: “It is strange that we have two virements here, both from ear-marked reserves. I don’t understand why the money wasn’t just put into the budget from ear-marked reserves at budget time earlier this year, and why it has had to come back to the full council and not simply been done by the officer.”
“I don’t recall four years ago during the last election cycle that the election bill from Sedgemoor came back for approval. It just got paid – so what’s changed?”
But Sally Jones, the council’s Responsible Financial Officer, explained: “New regulations confirm that you as a Town Council must authorise moves from ear-marked reserves. They also confirm that over certain amounts they must be approved by the full town council. I am following your regulations.”
Asked by Cllr Harvey why the council didn’t approve the payments at budget time earlier in the year, she said the bills could not be authorised earlier before they had not come into the council from Sedgemoor until recently.
Cllr Andy Brewer, Deputy Chairman of the Town Council, added: “In the past it has gone by what was the Policy and Finance Committee, and then has come to full council as a recommendation, so there has not been any change to the procedure. What has drawn more attention to it at the moment is the time we are in the year, and we are including this in an extraordinary meeting. I called tonight’s extraordinary meeting initially to consider Civic Awards nominations.”
But Cllr Helen Groves added: “Ear-marked reserves are for a specific purpose and in the past we have always agreed that these bills would be paid when presented by Sedgemoor. Yes, you can’t pay the bills before they come in, but there has always been a process to deal with this. It seems to have broken down.”
“In terms of these extraordinary meetings, you are risking ‘extraordinary’ becoming quite ‘ordinary’ if you are going to continue to address things in this way. It’s not a reasonable way to be dealing with things. We are being asked to make decisions on the basis of nothing.”
“I understand the background to these requests, but what otherwise would I be basing my decisions on? Absolutely nothing – these councillors have absolutely no information and they are here to rubber-stamp it through? There is no scrutiny about it.”
“If you are not sending out reports to councillors or giving them any information I don’t see how you can ask them to authorise these payments. We need to deal with them within the normal structure of meetings and not to be calling them extraordinary meetings at the drop of a pin – it’s ridiculous.”
Cllr Andy Brewer responded: “I think you have made your point quite clearly. In terms of what this payment is for, and in terms of transferring money from ear-marked reserves, which was established for this purpose, I don’t think there’s a huge amount more information that could be made available. This meeting was scheduled to consider civic award nominations – I trust you’re not suggesting that we wait until after the civic service [on September 8th] before we do that.”
Cllr Mike Facey proposed that the £9,633.74 payment go ahead, seconded by Cllr Peter Clayton. A show of hands recorded all councillors were in favour, except Cllr Groves who abstained. The second payment of £3,584 for footfall counters was also approved.