SCOTTISH Borders Council has revealed it could fail to post a balanced budget at the end of the financial year if it doesn’t find an extra £3 million through alternative savings.

The local authority needs to save £16.4m as part of its 2018/19 budget, but spiralling costs and a failure to make key savings means council officers are searching for an extra £3m of savings elsewhere in the budget.

Presenting a report to Scottish Borders Council this week, the authority’s chief financial officer, David Robertson, warned councillors that failure to find these extra savings would lead to the council posting an ‘adverse variance’ and failing to meet its savings target.

In his report, Mr Robertson also highlighted that nearly half of all of this year’s cutbacks are just temporary savings, which will need to be repeated year after year unless the council can find more permanent savings.

One short-term solution is to move budget surpluses from other services to the struggling departments. This includes moving £250,000 of as-of-yet unclaimed housing benefit money to cover a failed saving from the council’s ‘digital transformation’ policy, which is supposed to reduce employee costs.  

The council is also having to tap into its reserves to find an extra £235,000 in severance and redundancy payments for former employees.

Mid Berwickshire councillor Mark Rowley, who also acts as the council’s executive member for business and economic development, asked the chief financial officer: “In the report we hear with some confidence we’re going to meet the budget, and have a balanced budget at the end of the financial year, but that appears to be doing an awful lot of moving stuff around from different departments.

“I hate to use the expression ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ but there appears to be an awful lot of that, there appears to be an awful lot of temporary savings. Is that an ongoing trend? Is that a particular threat to the budget?”

In answer, Mr Robertson said: “It’s a worsening trend, very much so, and it’s an ongoing thing. That’s the risk that I’m highlighting to members.

“The management team is taking robust action, and we have a robust monitoring process.

“We think the action we’re taking now will balance the budget in the current financial year but I’m saying to you, there is a risk here that we could end up with an adverse variance at the end of the year given the pressure we’re under. An adverse variance could be submitted.”

However, the council’s chief executive, Tracey Logan, is confident the council will deliver the savings and balance the books: “I agree and disagree with that. We won’t end up with an adverse variance at the end of the year because we’ll make sure we don’t have one.

“However, that is not easy. It’s becoming increasingly difficult and we might have to do some really drastic stuff to stop us from posting an adverse variance.”

Although some council departments have stayed on budget, the report names the council’s adult social care and assets and infrastructure departments as the biggest culprits in terms of heaping pressure on the budget.

In particular, the council is currently undertaking a review of its curbside collection service, which is rumoured to be considering moving to three-weekly bin collections, but this has been delayed and has caused significant budget pressures.

A number of the authority’s waste management vehicles have also been taken off the road, forcing the council to hire replacement vehicles at a cost of £200,000.

Furthermore, the ageing demographic of the Scottish Borders, and the complexity of adult care needs, is heaping unexpected pressure on the adult social care budget.

Speaking after the meeting, council leader Shona Haslam commented: “It’s a challenging situation, nobody is denying that.

“The biggest pressure comes from the fact that the Scottish Government is cutting our funding every year. As a council we have to look at way that we can save money in order to deal with that ultimate pressure.

“We need to look at the way we’re delivering services, and delivering services in a different way. One of those is around the waste strategy and we need to look carefully at how we deliver. We need to take a long, hard look at it.

“That look has taken longer than we thought it was going to take, and so those savings are not coming through as quickly as we’d like.

“However, we are confident they will be coming through in the next six months of this year and into next year.”

When asked specifically whether the review will recommend moving to three-weekly bin collections, councillor Haslam said: “We have to look at all the options on how we deliver services differently and we’re looking at all of the options, not just about collecting waste, but looking at the way in which we deliver all of our services.”

Tweeddale East councillor Robin Tatler also commented: “The officers are very confident that when we put the budget together we’ll be able to catch up and we’ll actually have a balanced budget next year.

“The officers are putting things in place now which will remove that gap. The challenge is that we have to make permanent changes to the way that we operate in order to make the savings.”