Two Burnham-On-Sea residents have called on the Town Council to review how it handles grants and its budget-setting process.
Alex Turco and Bev Milner Simonds spoke separately during ‘public participation time’ at the start of Monday’s Burnham and Highbridge Town Council meeting.
Local resident Alex Turco spoke out at last Monday’s meeting on his observations of last month’s Town Council Policy & Finance Committee meeting.
He said: “Whilst it is entirely right that there is proper & thorough scrutiny of how public money is spent, at times I am sorry to say that it felt like a cross between a scene from Oliver and a Christmas Carol with a blend of ‘please Sir, can I have some more’ with a good dose of ‘Bah Humbug’.”
“After almost an hour of discussions for three local groups concerning whether documents could or could not be tabled, inadequately briefed representatives, and confusion about the meaning of total project costs and how much exactly the Council was being asked to contribute, I realised that there was one further representative of an applicant present. He was the representative of the Citizens Advice Bureau, who had come to ask for funds to continue to provide the services that are much needed and valued in the communities of Highbridge and Burnham.”
“I felt quite embarrassed that he had witnessed the preceding hour of tortured negotiations with three local groups.”
“In addition, I am alarmed by the decision to reduce the number of grant meetings per year from three to two on the apparent grounds of office workload and other business requiring meeting time. Concentrating the grant applications will likely make the grant meetings excessively long and nothing has been done to reduce the number of applicants to reduce the paperwork required. Further, whilst not making any allegation, I challenge members to be seen to be entirely impartial next April, mere days before an election, when the first Grant meeting of the new year is scheduled.”
“Members will know that I am a regular and long serving Town Council watcher and I would invite the longest serving Councillors to cast their minds back to how the Town Council used to handle grants, which if re-introduced would maintain scrutiny and transparency whilst reducing the administration to find a better way of proceeding.”
“Based on the strategic objectives of the Council, partner organisations used to have their own budget lines each year. The Responsible Financial Officer had delegated authority to distribute funds up to the budget line. If this structure were to be re-introduced, with the ongoing use of the Council’s grant monitoring form, the Responsible Financial Officer would be able to obtain all relevant information prior to a meeting and then the Committee would be able to review all spending each year in full possession of the facts, before a new budget was set.”
“This would reduce substantially the number of applications for grants whilst maintaining the Council’s support for organisations, services and events that meet its priorities and that help make this community a better place to live work and visit. I am sure the representative of the CAB would have been delighted not to have waited for his turn.”
Another local resident, Bev Milner Simonds, called into question the budget setting process during Monday’s meeting.
“I speak as a resident – not as an event organiser, not as a member of a political party – but because I see the council making decisions without a plan,” she said.
“I spoke out in 2017 when they were setting the budget as I thought that it was odd that they allocate 26.69% on maintaining the graveyards and only 1.2% on youth provision. Looking at next year’s budget not a lot has changed.”
“Somerset and Sedgemoor councils both consult publicly on their budget. This council has shown an appetite for consultation by consulting on the Burnham Evolution project, ironically that was a consultation on how to spend money you haven’t got.”
“There seems to be a lack of a plan. Deciding to cut down on the number of grant-setting meetings, but not having a plan of how to reduce the number of grants and seeing an opportunity for a section 106 payment, but not having a plan for how any funds might be spent. Having a Neighbourhood Plan that will see an increase in any CIL payments, but again no plan in place. Or a plan that they have all agreed.”
“We have heard councillors speaking ‘off the record’ to journalists, making public Facebook and Twitter posts – that at best are ill-advised, at worse are slanderous, bringing the council they serve on into disrepute and crossing moral and taste boundaries. It’s these increasingly frequent indiscretions that annoy me and make me fear for this council.”
“The personal attacks I can shoulder, I think they say more about the councillors who make them than my endeavours to make Burnham and Highbridge a better place to live, work and visit. But the complacency that means that this council continues to always do what they always did, in the same way because questioning the convention isn’t something that you do in the run up to an election… that’s unforgivable.”