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Budget Busting Bus Blues

Budget busting bus bluesGiven the spin that's emanating from the Commissar's office about OAP bus passes, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was sliding a Routemaster around the skid-pan himself.  The latest missive comes in the form of a press release sent to most of the media (see it in full here). It begins by saying how popular the bus pass scheme is and how everything in the garden is rosy - because five months into the scheme, applications for passes are up by a third.   Wonderful.

counterbalance smells a rat. This is a softening up process, as a prelude to an overspend.

The Commissar goes on to say there have been a lot of rumours about the funding of the scheme (wonder who he thinks is spreading these rumours?) and he wants to reassure residents where the money is coming from. He says that, in partnership with the other Lancashire districts, he has implemented the free concessionary fares scheme which is more generous than that required by the Government. 

He says it is more generous because not only does it enable free travel within the boundaries of Fylde, as the Government requires, but there is also half-fare travel throughout the rest of Lancashire. 

He goes on to say that to achieve this, the Council is currently budgeted to spend over 550,000, although the final cost could be greater. 

Now that's an interesting figure.

You'll remember that Fylde was given an extra 486,000 by the Government for the additional costs of setting up the new concessionary travel scheme.

You'll also remember the Commissar snaffled 205,000 of this money to offset spending elsewhere because he thought he was going to overspend by 700,000. (In fact he underspent by 339,000 but  that's another story)

But now his spending is predicted to be almost three times what he budgeted, and he will have spent even more than the Government provided!  What skill, what an estimator.

He doesn't even try to explain this overspending, (we'll have a go at that in a minute), because the purpose of his Press Release is not to explain the overspending, but to soften us up for when it gets even bigger.

Next, he throws in a good dose of smoke and mirrors.

You need to read the next paragraph very carefully, its is his direct quote, and a masterful example of how politicians set out to deceive their electorate today. He says:

"On the question of the funding provided by the Government to implement the new scheme, and whether the Council is, in fact, using all of it to fund the scheme, this is difficult to answer as the Government has provided the money as part of the total grant we receive each year to help pay for all council services. Therefore any allegations that money has been misappropriated cannot be justified."

"This is difficult to answer." he says. 

You bet it is, when you don't want folk to know what's going on. 

The following is an extract from the preparation for his current budget. It shows how the 205,000 was taken from concessionary travel money and used to offset a shortfall in the budget. 

Concessionary fares 2006 budget

But the best example of his 'doublespeak' is the bit about 'misappropriation.' (Doublespeak means that it says exactly the opposite of what most folk would expect the truth to be).

At its most literal reading, it is a true statement. The money wasn't given with a fence around it - the Government said what the extra money was for, and it trusted Councils to use it for what it had been provided. 

They certainly didn't expect the Commissar's lot to snaffle half of it to cover up their supposed overspending.

If you think counterbalance might have got it wrong, or that we're exaggerating, just check out the Parliamentary record for Prime Minister's Questions on 19 April this year (2006). 

David Borrow MP from South Ribble Council (based in Leyland), said he had been told by the County Council that some district Councils in Lancashire had spent the money on things other than pensioner bus passes. He asked the Prime Minister to look into the matter and to ensure the money that had been provided by the Chancellor was spent for the purpose for which it was intended.

The Prime Minister himself, no less, (and not someone counterbalance is often able to quote directly in relation to Fylde) said "It certainly should be spent for that purpose. I gather that we have put about 350 million into the scheme and it is there to benefit people. There is absolutely no reason why those Councils should not take action to benefit pensioners in the way they wish and ensure the money that has been invested has been used for the purpose for which it was allocated."

So the Commissar now enjoys the dubious honour of outsexing even the Prime Minster's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" announcement for spin and doublespeak. 

As Frank Carson - another comedian - used to say, "Its the way I tell 'em"

Which dose of reality brings us back to the overspending.

He was given 486,000
He snaffled 205,000 of this in case he overspent, leaving
281,000 for spending on the bus passes
But he now expects to spend 550,000


Well, so far as he is concerned, the softening up process to explain why has begun with this press release, it paves the way for him to say how generous he has been to pensioners, and he planned to do it this way all along.

Word on the streets is that the scheme has been more popular than expected, so there will be some increase because of this. If the Commissar is right, and take up is up by a third - and assuming he got his sums right before it started, you'd expect the cost would also be up by about a third, so that would give a cost of around 375,000. 

But its not. It's already  175,000 higher than this, and in the Commissar's own words "....the final cost could be greater"

So where's the 175,000 gone then?

Well, through the year, counterbalance has heard repeated stories of pensioners being 'charged' for longer journeys than they actually took. But seeing as they 'pay' with a pass, most pensioners don't bother much with the ticket, even if they can follow the computerised printout.

But as usual, counterbalance readers are fortunate. We have a friend who is something of a bus expert, and since the scheme came into being, our friend has logged all the 80 journeys they used their bus pass for. According to our friend, improper charging was particularly common at first, although it is tailing off a bit now.

For example, a trip from Lytham to The Victoria Pub on Church Road, was 'charged' as through the trip ended at the Thursby Home, which is two or three fare stages further on. Fylde gets the bill for these journeys.

Using the experience of their 80 journeys this year, our friend estimates that 25% of all journeys have been wrongly charged. 

Now, if you take the Commissar's predicted figure of 550,000 to pay for the concessionary travel, and work out what 25% of it is, you can see how the missing 175,000 might have arisen. (At least if you use the Commissar's way of accounting)

So payment for some bus journeys has been claimed excessively. Given that  checking on journeys claimed is only done by sampling of a few instances, it has the potential to account for excess expenditure as well.

Good job the Commissar's not organising a booze-up in a brewery. 

If he can't even be trusted to look after the bus tickets properly, how can we expect him to look after our cash?

Dated:  12 October 2006


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