Councillor accuses SIC of ‘scaremongering’ with budget document

A COUNCILLOR says he believes parts of a document released by the SIC listing some of the options due to be considered in the upcoming budget setting process “read like scaremongering”.

Tom Morton, who is a Labour councillor for Shetland North, also said introducing a public survey following a series of private councillor seminars “flies in the face of transparency and accountability”.

The council this week issued its latest leaflet on its budget pressures ahead of councillors deciding on finances for 2023/24 in March.

It lists a series of possible options the council would reduce its spend, or increase income, amid increasing costs, rising demand and “reduced government funding”.

This included a warning that ferry maintenance could be deferred if the Scottish Government does not give the council its full ‘fair ferry funding’ ask, while reviews of other services could potentially take place.

A short survey has also been issued to allow the public to give some input on the budget setting process, including whether council tax should be increased and by how much.

Shetland North councillor Tom Morton.

But Morton said that, in his view, the public consultation is “extremely belated”.

He also claimed that some of the options listed in the document reads like “deliberate scaremongering – an effort to make the actual blows, when they fall, seem less severe”.

The council previously said it wished to keep the public abreast of what may be involved in the budget setting process – including any potential changes to services.

The budget setting process comes off the back of serious concerns from the Accounts Commission over the financial sustainability of the council.

The SIC sits on reserves which at the end of December had a value of £377 million.

The money is invested in the global markets, and as a result its value fluctuates. For example, the value at the end of December 2021 was £449 million.

Council officials say the reserves can be tapped into to fund services sustainably up to a point, after which the draws become “unsustainable”. The SIC has repeatedly had to do this to balance the books.

The council said it calculates it can “safely” take £15 million a year from reserves.

But Morton said the bottom line is moral, not financial, and encouraged spending “wisely” from the reserves.

“Children must eat and be properly educated,” he said.

“The elderly and sick must be cared for. We have a huge ‘rainy day’ reserve fund, a usable one, far bigger than other councils in Scotland, and this is, as I and the Labour Party said before I was elected, the time to use some of it to protect our people.

“This is the rainy day. We must not be suckered by an obsession with austerity. Spend wisely and for the sake of our people. Sustain them. That is what the money is there for.”

Morton also called for the curtailing of “daft and unnecessary spend” – including the “Disney world of bridges and tunnels”, unless government wish to pay up.

Shetland Central member Ian Scott also wrote in a letter this week about the use of reserves.

In a statement released on Wednesday council leader Emma Macdonald said she knew the decisions we take in March are “likely to have an impact on services across the council in future”.

She said the council is “very mindful that […] we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to bring our spending in line with the resources available to us”.

Macdonald previously said the SIC is “not keeping secrets” around this year’s budget process – “we’re being open and honest”.

Shetland News