17 October 2010

A dirty little secret.......

Recently, in a casual conversation, one of M&B's readers commented that they continued to be surprised at the venom which my criticism of the old Somerton Town Council had attracted. We were discussing the revelation (old news now) that way back in August 2008, when I wrote my first detailed letter of enquiry to the Town Council, the internal response was to take a legal opinion (at Somerton's expense) as to how the Town Council could avoid replying to my enquiries. Even at that very early stage, there was absolutely no effort on the part of the old Somerton Town Council to engage in any form of dialogue and it was that very defensiveness that caused me to wonder what exactly drove their fear and paranoia.

As the saga unfolded, it became obvious to me that there was a lot more going on with the old Somerton Town Council than a simple refusal to respond to enquiries from a member of the public. The manner in which Keenan & Canvin ran the Town Council left much to be desired and the bullying which was commonplace at Council meetings indicated that many issues, supposedly discussed and decided at Council meetings were, in fact, decided well in advance and the rest of the Council were simply whipped into line. By the same token, the lack of any professional management of the Council's affairs, especially with regard to competitive tendering (which Keenan stated didn't work) raised concerns in my mind as to the regulation of the Council's expenditure. Whilst it may be too late to delve into previous year's accounts, it would be interesting to see who benefited from Council largesse over the last decade and whether or not the Town ever received value for money under the Keenan/Canvin 'no tendering' regime.

But what may yet become the real scandal of the old Somerton Town Council may be the manner in which the old Town Council plundered the Precept to fund their profligacy. I recall a comment made to me early last year when I was first making enquiries about the Precept. The Town Clerk observed that other Councils were watching with great interest what Somerton Town Council was doing with its Precept budget.

At the time the full significance of that comment escaped me but now, having read a little about the nature of the Precept, it is all too obvious that the Precept, because it is not subject to any capping regime, can, has, and is being used by stupid or greedy Councils to fund grandiose schemes which then become a burden on the rate payer ad infinitum. The old Somerton Town Council, or those who drove the Council, knew that they could simply present a budget to SSDC in the preceding December and get however much they wanted in the following April, no strings and, importantly, no accountability.

In the ten years up till fiscal 2008/9, Somerton Town Council had cranked the Precept up by an average of just less than 20% per annum and today, most of the Precept is spent before it arrives with the Council. Inflated staffing levels, unsettled debt, structural overheads and the like mean that there is little left for the new Town Council to spend on the community.

So maybe the sordid tale of the Etsome Terrace/Tin Dunny swap wasn't the only dirty little secret that the old Somerton Town Council wanted to keep out of sight. Maybe the bigger story is the way that the old Town Council mismanaged Public Funds and used the availability of further Public Funding to keep themselves afloat. The more I think about it, the greater are the parallels between the Old Somerton Town Council and Newcastle in the 1970s. Who benefited? Certainly not the taxpayer.

Till next time, and threats not withstanding, I'm still Niall Connolly.