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In Deep Water

Pools to Close?The foolish scare stories released by the Commissar recently about closing Lowther Pavilion, Fairhaven Lake and St Annes Pool and Kirkham Baths have really upset people. As we've said before, he does this every year so he can appear a saviour when he "saves" them for us. (And he really does think we are stupid enough to be taken in).

His financial incompetence is the stuff of legend. People will look back on this time and ask.... how could he have been allowed to get away with all that waste?

But this year the threat to the pools might not be a cry of "Wolf !"

It might be different. We're picking up stories of a real and credible threat to close St Anne's Swimming Pool.

So why is the threat now more real, what's changed?

In some ways, nothing much. He has continued the profligacy and waste trying to run Fylde's budget as though it was the size of Liverpool's - where the vast numbers of residents can afford to bear the scale of overheads he takes for granted.

He thinks it's quite normal to have the odd £70,000 for a consultancy here, and a couple of hundred thousand for a feasibility study there. Then there's the £120,000 a year as a fixed payment to Blackpool for providing a "Human Resource" service (and that's as well as the other £80,000 a year for the actual work). We've covered this and more in 'Incompetence or Fraud?'.

Year on year, the effects of his excessive non-productive costs, his mushrooming overheads, and his aborted "good ideas" have been building up and draining the resources.

But this year has been a disaster.

He has been shocked by a shortfall of £700,000 in Dim Tim's Street Scene department's accounts. This involves an overspend of £609,000 and an income shortfall of £100,000.

The Czar for "Finance and Efficiency" (and that name's now a joke) - that Nice Paul Rigsby admitted: spending in the [Street Scene] department had "spiralled out of control".

Dear God!

What sort of financial reporting system is the Commissar presiding over when he doesn't know about losses on this enormous scale until 10 months into a 12 month accounting period. Have there been no monitoring reports before now? Has this not been flagged up? Why has he not been chasing this before now? Has he sold all the accountants off to Blackpool?

And amazingly, he still doesn't even know where the money has gone - or if he does, he isn't telling us - which could mean a whole new ballgame of revelations still to come on this disgraceful overspend.

We understand that the North West Employers Organisation has been invited in to investigate this matter. Normally with an accounting problem you would expect to find either accountants or auditors being asked to sift through the wreckage of the accounts in the overspending department (or sometimes the Police), but not this time. Use of NWEO is unusual, and suggests it may not be an accounting problem, but perhaps a problem relating to people.

£609,000 is a huge overspend for a council the size of Fylde, there's something definitely untoward here. A two-bit council like Fylde simply can't afford to handle losses on this scale.

All told, (as we said in 'Incompetence or Fraud?') there is an expected shortfall of £1.1 million in the current year's accounts.

To square that, Mr Finance from Preston who now runs Fylde's accounts took a hammer to the piggy bank of Special Reserves, smashed it open and more or less emptied it. We daresay he wouldn't have wanted to do this, but he didn't have a lot of other options.

That leaves the Commissar with a special reserves balance of around £800,000 (almost entirely payments from developers toward providing "affordable housing") and a general reserve of around £500,000 which is essential for covering unexpected costs of things like civil emergencies (e.g. flooding or some subsidence on a big public building which isn't insured).

So, as he looks at the budget for next year, the position we are in is this: We have ongoing commitments to profligate and wasteful schemes that have to be maintained in the short term because we are contractually bound to them, and we have a huge current year overspend (more than the cost of running the Swimming pool for a year) which has all but emptied the reserves.

Not a good position,

Looking forward, the Government grant has been reduced, and the introduction of free-for-all bus travel for the over 60's could pose a real threat to spending plans if the take-up is higher than estimated (as it probably will be).

If we were facing a "normal" year, it wouldn't be so bad. We would have significant reserves to draw on, and we could tighten our belts on maintenance a bit to weather the storm.

But it's not a normal year, and none of those options is available.

Worse, the £600,000 overspend in Street Scene this year is projected to continue at £500,000 a year for the next few years, so he's trying to cover that as well.

Because of all this, he thinks he is going to be around £1m short for next year.

In fact (though he probably won't admit this publicly) it's probably going to be nearer £500,000 because there is nearly always an underspend of between £300,000 and £500,000 when the accounts for this year are finally closed (things that were to have been completed in that year aren't, and things people desperately wanted to do don't get completed, so the money goes back into the central pot)

So the reality facing him is that he needs to save somewhere probably between £500,000 and £1m from next year's budget.

Now if you or I were doing that, we might look at extraneous things like expansive consultancies, and officer time wasted on so-called joint working schemes.

In other words we might remove the froth around the edges of our core work - which is to provide public services and maintain the property we have.

We might also get a grip on departments than can overspend to the tune of £700,000 in a single year, and maybe invite the person responsible to apply for work elsewhere.

Paul (The Mauler) Hayhurst accurately sensed the public mood this week when he used the media to call for Councillors to suspend their allowances scheme, saving £300,000 this year. That's about the same as the net cost of keeping St Annes and Kirkham Pools open this year.

Undoubtedly in our view the first thing to cut would be the (what by now will be huge) sums being spent on this ridiculous white elephant office block the Commissar is planning. We're hearing stories that so far, something in excess of £350,000 has been spent just on the plans for this project. Again, that's the expected cost of keeping both pools open next year.

In domestic terms, he hasn't got enough to feed his family, but he is driving his pals around in a gas-guzzler, regularly gambling for a big win in the hope of covering his losses, and pricing up an extension to the house.

The last thing he will think of is cutting back on the overheads like allowances, and feasibility projects like the new Town Hall and joint working schemes that are already costing us dear. The chances were always that he would just look for a nice round sum of £500,000 or £600,000 or so to chop out.

His eyes land on St Anne's Swimming Pool. et voilla. The answer.

So this year we think he is really gunning for St Anne's Pool.

He must really hate Swimming Pools. Year after year he has tried to get rid of them, either by closing them or by getting the private and charitable sectors to tender for them. Each time his staff have shown him it can't be done more cheaply. They are doing it as well as anyone can, but with the regulations that govern safety in swimming pools today, having a swimming pool is a costly business. But then drowning has a terrible human cost if your child didn't learn to swim.

He has already tried to con money out of the St Anne's Town Council for St Anne's Pool.

We heard the letter from Deputy Chief Executive David Joy read out to stunned Town Councillors at the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council meeting. It went something like this

"As you may be aware the Borough Council is currently exploring more efficient, effective and economic ways of continuing swimming provision. It is hoped that either a single mechanism, or a number of such mechanisms in combination can be found to reduce the subsidy per user.

I have been requested by the portfolio holder for Finance and Efficiency Cllr Paul Rigby to broach with the town council one such mechanism which we can either explore further, or which the Borough Council can discount altogether depending on the position adopted by the Town Council.

The mechanism in question is that of a financial contribution being made by the Town Council to help reduce the subsidy per user at St Anne's Swimming Pool. (For your information, a similar request has been made to Kirkham Town Council with regard to Kirkham Baths).

I would be most grateful if you would seek the Town Council's view on this matter and let me know accordingly..."

This idea has two glaring faults in its logic.

First, if they wanted to, they could easily reduce the subsidy per user by reducing entry charges and thus increasing the number of users for the same operational cost. This would immediately lower the subsidy per user.

But that's not what they really want, that's just doublespeak to confuse people.

What they really want is a lower net operating cost.

Having lost and wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds in the last few years, he's now asking St Anne's residents to bail him out by paying cash over to the St Anne's on the Sea Town Council so they can pass it on to him and he can "carry on regardless" (yes, really!)

The second logic fault is to believe that St Anne's Swimming Pool or Kirkham Baths are only provided for the people of St Anne's and Kirkham. This is a complete fallacy. They are there to serve the whole borough (and in St Anne's case to help attract visitors), albeit that they are located in the two towns.

Applying this logic elsewhere he would expect the cost of running the National Theatre, the Tate, the British Museum, The Natural History Museum, the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery and all the rest to be met only by people who live in London.

It's plain madness.

These facilities are for the nation, but they are located in the most populated and conveniently accessible place. London.

Just as the swimming facilities are intended to serve the whole of Fylde and they are located on the best transport routes and in the most populous parts of Fylde.

We understand St Anne's Town Council said they would like to know more details, and what sort of money was under discussion. We gather they have not yet had a reply, but word reaching us Friday from the Town Hall suggested that the Commissar's plan is to close St Anne's Pool (and possibly Kirkham Baths), then blame the St Anne's and Kirkham Town Councils for the closure because they wouldn't pay toward the cost.

What he fails to understand here is that we, together with everyone else in Fylde, are already paying for it, and have been for many years.

If you remember, it wasn't us that suddenly found a £600,000 overspend in the accounts of Street Scene (which is more than the cost of running the pools for a year), nor was it us that has spent £300,000 on plans for a new Town Hall, nor was it us that put his personal allownaces up from £6000 a year to £9,000 a year  (and other allowances up too), it was the Commissar.

If he can't get a grip on his extravagance and focus on what people in this area believe is important, then its time to move over and let someone else have a go.

He tells us £144,000 of the overspend is on fuel costs. May be so. Presumably now that Fylde BC empties the bins in Wyre there will be more travelling about and this means more petrol. Maybe we should return to emptying our own bins, and let Wyre empty their own.

There will also be more travelling about because he closed the vehicle maintenance depot on Heeley Road St Anne's so he could sell it as a hostel for the transient homeless, and opened a new one on an industrial estate in Poulton le Fylde, fifteen miles away. That will put up the travel costs too.

Only today we heard the story of a small-time contractor who undertook minor maintenance work on the bin wagons in St Anne's when they were based in St David's Road. He would turn up there, do the business and go. Now he has been asked to travel to Poulton, pick up a bin lorry, bring it back to St Anne's, do the necessary, then deliver it back to Poulton and return home to St Anne's. Great for finance and efficiency, great for global warming.

No wonder he needs extra money.

And to cover the Commissar's mismanagement and financial incompetence he now plans to close St Anne's Pool. That will upset not only St Annes, but the wider community of Fylde.

He won't remember of course, but part of the reason for building St Anne's Pool was to replace the Lytham Baths that were converted to flats above the rooms leased by Lytham Town Trust. So he's about to upset Lytham as well.

We also wonder what he will do with the closed pool? Mothballing might save the staff costs, and that's a big portion of the whole, but by no means all of it. He will need to keep the air condition and some heating equipment running to stop frost damage, structural corrosion and damp. And if he tries to empty the tank he is in for real trouble. Relieved of the terrific weight of water it is not uncommon for pools to break their back and crack across, rendering them structurally useless. Just as bad, the tiles that line the base and sides often rely on the water pressure and moisure for their continuing adhesion. Tiles dropping off is an expensive repair as well. We seem to remember they were made specially for St Annes Pool.

So if he's not going to use it as a swimming pool again, maybe he plans to lease it out for some other use. We wonder what that might be?

How about a nightclub to bolster his "night time economy"?

He knows he is in trouble on this and the budget in general. We understand he called a press briefing on the budget at the Town Hall yesterday (Friday) to get his message across.

If that story is true, (and the source was credible), that's spin of the worst order. Putting the story out first to grab the headlines and insulting other Councillors who have the responsibility for making the decision by doing so, is discourteous in the extreme. The arrogance of such an approach is symptomatic of the problems that have been brought to what was once a decent, honest, hardworking little council like Fylde.

We also understand the media were also treated to the story that the Special Expenses con trick is about to be tried again. As regulars will know, this is one of our favourites. You can see some Special Expenses background information here. If and when we see more of the figures for this year, we'll do a further report.

But the Commissar might be in for a shock. The people of Kirkham and St Anne's are not going to easily settle for closing the Swimming Pool, nor will they take the con-trick of special expenses lying down.

Those who support the Commissar, especially the newer ones from the last intake, won't have experienced the sort of anger they will see from these moves, and we're sure it's not what they came into local government for.

We sense the pressure is building.

Dated:  9 February 2008


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