UP to £80,000 has been set aside to upgrade New Forest councillors’ home computer systems at the same time as non-essential capital projects face being postponed.
Members of New Forest District Council’s ruling cabinet maintained that councillors using the money for new laptops and improving broadband would help maintain the “democratic process” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, they hoped not all the money would be used, telling their latest meeting that upgrades would ensure the security of council’s systems.
The figure provoked questions from both veteran Conservative Cllr Derek Tipp and Liberal Democrat opposition member Cllr Jack Davies.
Cllr Tipp said: “I do not dispute the need to give support to members but do you think £80,000 seems rather excessive?” He speculated that as few as 20 members may need help which would make £20,000 “more than enough”.
Responding, council leader Cllr Barry Rickman stressed the figure was part of a £500,000 “smarter working” budget.
Cabinet member for finance Cllr Jeremy Heron said it was vital the “democratic process was maintained” so members “can take part in debates” and represent the public. He said the figure was a “worst case scenario”.
The £80,000 figure was revealed in a report into the council’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis which it said has had a “significant impact” on its finances.
As reported in the A&T, NFDC has lost well over £2m in income because of one-off costs during the lockdown and the enforced closures of its leisure centres and now re-opened car parks.
Cllr Heron said it was estimated the council had lost “in excess of £6m” in total and he added the situation going forward was still unknown.
“We continue to look towards central government for further funding but I am confident NFDC can rise to the challenge facing it,” he added.
The council has set up four task groups, which comprise 41 councillors in total. The three-page recovery report to the cabinet meeting said the finance task group had already met and decided to “focus on an immediate review of 2020/21 budgets”.
It is also considering implementing measures to “control employee costs” to ensure only essential staffing posts are filled and consider redeploying existing workers where their roles have been affected by Covid-19.
The report noted the impact on income at Dibden Golf Centre, owned by NFDC, which could affect discussions with the private operator over future rents.
The council will also assess “the postponement of non-essential capital schemes”, but the report did not go into further detail.