How Harrogate Borough Council hopes to balance the books despite £10m Covid shortfall
Harrogate Borough Council will hold a special meeting next week to approve its new budget as the authority looks to plot a path out of the pandemic which is expected to leave a £10.6million hole in its finances.
Councillors will come together on Wednesday to vote on the 2021/22 spending plans as well as a £5 council tax increase which could push the average annual bills for Harrogate residents beyond £2,000 once proposed rises from North Yorkshire County Council, police and fire services, and parish councils are taken into account.
Officials at Harrogate Borough Council have managed to project a balanced budget for the next financial year despite pressures caused by Covid-19 and a reduction in core funding from the government.
This is thanks to planned savings, use of reserves, emergency government grants and the proposed rise in council tax.
The authority has also frozen almost all recruitment during the pandemic which has prompted some concerns that the strain of balancing the books is being placed on staff.
Speaking at a meeting on Monday, Liberal Democrat councillor Chris Aldred, chairman of the council's overview and scrutiny committee, said the job freezes were "entirely understandable" during this "one-off" year but not something the council could live with long-term.
"This isn't sustainable in the long run and is just a stop-gap measure to get us through this financial year," he said. "If we want to deliver the same services we are going to have to re-employ people somewhere down the line."
He added: "To be in a position after all that has gone this year that we are still looking to come out on budget is absolutely staggering. The officers have done a great job."
Documents to be presented to next Wednesday's meeting outline how council officials are planning to balance the books this next financial year and in the immediate years following the hopeful end of the coronavirus outbreak.
In total, the council will cut £1.14million from its current budget while £1.03million has been earmarked for spending in new areas.
The biggest mover will be Harrogate Convention Centre which will save more than £791,000 through marketing and salary cuts as the venue looks set to remain on standby as an NHS Nightingale hospital until at least the end of March.
The council's sports and leisure portfolio has also been severely impacted by Covid-19 and will see its spends slashed by more than £250,000 as leisure centres remain shut during more lockdown closures.
Areas which will see spending increase include £285,000 for waste collections and £133,000 for homelessness prevention.
On top of the £1.9million it has already received, the council is in line for more government support through coronavirus cash grants to help it plug the forecasted £10.6million shortfall.
The authority is also expecting many more residents facing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic will struggle to pay their council tax bills for which it has received £232,000 from the government.
The proposed £5 tax rise means the council's proportion of bills could increase to £250.92 in April, while North Yorkshire County Council's proposed 3.49% rise will see its collections rise to £1,411.05
North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner's office is currently consulting on its tax proposals which the government has said could be increased by up to £15 for police services and £1.45 for fire.
In total, this means the average council tax bill for a Band D property in Harrogate could rise from £1,947.85 in 2020/21 to £2,016.91 in 2021/22, with parish council collections still to be added.
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter