Thursday, January 20, 2022

Creeting St Peter - setting a budget in a time of flux...

It's that time of year again, when a young councillor's thoughts turn to the annual precept. Here in Creeting St Peter, it's been a little more challenging than usual.

Not having a Clerk is, in itself, never likely to be helpful, although Jennie, our outgoing Clerk, very thoughtfully included a copy of the form that needs to be completed and sent to Mid Suffolk District Council. And I'm good with forms...

Budgeting for the Clerk's salary for 2022/23 and related costs, however, is more complex. I don't even know if we'll have a Clerk when the financial year starts - we'll be advertising shortly, but trained Clerks are not exactly in abundance in Suffolk. And, given that this represents nearly 50% of our expenditure in a "normal" year, it leaves quite a lot of scope of variance. In truth, the only thing we can reasonably do is draft a budget that assumes that costs will remain as they are.

Our street lights are, frankly, on their last legs. They're rather aged, inefficient and prone to failure, and cost much more to run than modern LED ones would. The County Council are in the midst of a huge programme of renewal, and they are offering to install new ones for us, at a cost yet to be determined. We can probably find the money from reserves, from grants from councillor locality budgets and, if necessary, a loan from the Public Works Loan Board (chargeable at a pretty reasonable 2% or so). We may even be able to get a s.106 grant but, for the timebeing, whilst we know what the size of the pot is, it's divisible between ourselves and Stowmarket - and there's a lot more of them than there are of us. How do you budget for that?

The rest of it is pretty straightforward - we've already signed off the cost of grass cutting, and been told how much we'll be charged for having the dog waste bins emptied (it's all glamour here, I assure you). Everything else requires an uplift for inflation, but the impacts are marginal at worst.

In the end, we've settled for what is, at the end of the day, a standstill budget, increasing the precept by 0.46%, or £24 (I do always say that we're a very small Parish Council!). There is a twist though, in that our tax base has increased from 99.03 in 2021/22 to 101.56 in 2022/23, and that means that our band D charge actually falls from £52.27 to £51.20, a drop of 2.04%.

If we're wrong, our existing reserves policy should protect us, and given that the risks predominantly point towards an underspend, I'm reasonably confident that we'll be alright. We will need to review our reserves policy in a year's time though. Hopefully, there'll be a lot more certainty by then.

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