The Audit Committee meeting is not guaranteed to be a scintillating affair.
The subject can be quite obscure and a little technical at times and coupled
with the lack of a microphone system and the speaking in hushed tones, it is not
the easiest to follow. At yesterday’s meeting the
whisperer-in-chief was Deputy Finance Director John Peters and his lead
was picked up by practically everyone else.
As you can see from the photograph the chairman is backed up by five council officers, two auditors from Grant Thornton and four councillors (left) to ask questions. One was a few minutes late arriving and missed the photo call.
What you cannot see in the photograph is the 339 page Agenda and its 62 page Supplement - and that excludes all the stuff that is on the restricted list and must be kept secret from the people who foot the bills.
That team of eight is there to field the questions from the four councillors, only two of whom (†) ask questions - with one exception, see below. The first 292 pages of the Agenda were dealt with in less than half an hour.
I just about heard John Peters say something was “a very good achievement overall”. I think it was to do with an underspend somewhere or other. I also heard him apologetically refer to the Accounts as “a hugely technical and complicated document prescribed by regulations”. So it’s not just me who thinks that.
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) was the inquisitor-in-chief and without him it would be fair to say that we would all be a lot more ignorant of the inner workings of Bexley council than is the case now. Who but him would pick up on the fact that the Stock Transfer Warranties Reserve had apparently fallen in the space of four weeks from £2·2 million to £480,000?
The Accounts showed that they had although in reality it had taken just a little longer. John Peters justified the reduction by referring to the savings that were required and “the money was more urgently needed elsewhere“. If the warranty was ever required the money could be borrowed, he said, but he did not think the reserve would be needed.
Also noted by councillor Francis was that the schools budget kept going into overspend. £3·132 million last year. John Peters referred to the high cost of specialist out of borough education which “can run into six figures”. Per pupil I assumed but he didn’t actually say. Only this week Bexley council has lost a case in court that will cost it £300,000. “A case like that dilutes what is available for the whole education service.”
Daniel Francis turned his attention to the golden goodbyes paid out in 2014/15 and specifically referred to the Director of Adult Social Services. I think he meant Mark Charters who was on a salary of £157,963 but hopped over to the Isle of Man for better pickings where he soon came a cropper.
The question led to the revelation that £1,149,187 had been paid out in redundancy packages in 2014/15.
Just over a quarter of a million had been shared by 35 people on very low salaries, nearly £400,000 went to 14 earning up to £40k. a year and the big prizes went to the top brass.
Three in the 40 to 60k. bracket shared £143,000. Two on the next level shared £135,000 and one on £100,000 a year took away £97,000 for early retirement. (Mike Frizoni?)
The top scorer, Mark Charters presumably, went away with £110,000.
And Bexley council is flat broke.
Daniel Francis also wanted to know “how the hell” was the further cut in grant for Hall Place and Danson House “sustainable” when they said that last years’ cut might be unmanageable. Finance Director Alison Griffin said the cut would be “gradual” and conceded that the council was running a risk with the loan to the Heritage Trust. Times are hard - except for managers approaching retirement age.
When the auditors took to the stage councillor Cafer Munir (Conservative, East Wickham) asked the same question he does at every Audit meeting. How much will the objection to the 2013/14 Accounts cost the council. This is a reference to the funny goings on in the Parking Department to which Bexley’s Internal Auditor has attached the word Maladministration many times.
The auditor did not know.
In response to a question from councillor Francis - yes him again - the auditor said their investigator might reach a conclusion by early November.
As part of his summary of the 2013/14 Accounts, auditor Geoffrey Bannister said that “Joe Public probably hasn’t noticed that much the savings that you have made”. Not every taxpayer will agree with him.
† Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) also asked questions but generally too technical for my feeble mind to follow.