Money not ‘stashed’

IN LAST week’s edition the County Times asked for details about West Sussex County Council’s reserves under the headline ‘Council stashing away millions while axing services, says ‘dossier of shame’’.

The short answer is that it is taxpayers’ money and fully accounted for. In fact, we sent the County Times a link to the council’s budget book which is published on our website. This information is available to anybody.

We are maintaining balances at a level of just over three per cent of the spending they cover. This represents just above the minimum level required for prudent financial management.

The budget for 2012-13 allocates a contribution of some £15m to reserves which will be used to invest in capital and infrastructure projects that will boost the local economy, and for ‘invest to save’ projects which will save the council tax payer money over time.

The Don’t Cut Us Out Campaign seems determined to willfully ignore two important points about reserves:

Money is not simply ‘stashed away’. It is earmarked for specific purposes, and in many cases not available to be spent elsewhere.

The £38m quoted in their so-called ‘dossier’ includes around £27.5m for PFI schemes - smoothing the costs for taxpayers now so they don’t have to pay more later.

Failing to put this money aside now would lead to bills of hundreds of millions at the end of the 25-year contracts.

Even if all the money ‘stashed away’ could have been spent on services, it would only have lasted one year - so in a year’s time, we would have to make the self-same cuts anyway except our coffers would now be empty too.

That is not in the interests of West Sussex taxpayers.

Can I also point out that capital reserves can only be spent on infrastructure improvements across the county such as new school classrooms to cope with rising pupil numbers, school maintenance schemes and road improvements.

The day to day running of services delivered by the council, such as adult social care, is financed from revenue - that is money available annually from government grants and council tax.

Raiding reserves to run services means that once the reserves have been used up those services would simply have to stop because they cannot continue to be financed. It would also leave the council in a desperately serious financial situation.

MICHAEL BROWN

(Con, Fernhurst) West Sussex County Council cabinet member for finance and resources, County Hall