The first in a series of face to face public meetings about the latest round of budget choices being considered by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar took place in Barvas and Tarbert last night (Monday).
A raft of 31 proposed cuts has been tabled for discussion and debate, with Council members keen to ensure they gain as much public feedback as possible before making firm decisions.
In 2016/17 overall local government funding fell by 3.5% (£350m) compared to 2015/16, meaning that for the Comhairle there is a £4.5m reduction in grant.
This taken together with the budget deficit carried over from 2015/16 (£1.5m), inflationary pressures (£1m), additional N.I pension related costs (£1.5m) and Health and Social Care pressures (£1.3m) means the Island local authority has a funding gap of £9.8m in 2016/17.
If there is a further fall in government funding by 3% in 2017/18 another funding gap of £4.5m will open up.
In an effort to manage this financial squeeze the Comhairle has been making plans since last April looking to identify efficiencies, savings and ways to generate revenue.
But the stark reality is that even if all the proposed budget choices went through the books would still be in the red to the tune of £1.5m in 2016/17 and £3.6m in 2017/18.
The task to cut costs and maintain as much of the services expected by Islanders is a tricky one and the gym hall at Sgoil an Taobh Siar, Barvas hosted a healthy turn out of the public and local councillors keen to hear more detail, put their questions and raise concerns.
They were presented with a document detailing the proposals, incorporating a four option scoring system, where each proposed budget choice could be marked ‘Fully Support’ down to ‘Fully Oppose’ and a three point priority scale from ‘High Priority’ to ‘Low Priority’.
This document and scoring system will also be available online from the Council website from today: here.
Unsurprising the most hotly debated issue on the night was the suggestion to discontinue the use of all Itinerant Teachers (specialists in music, P.E and art) in primary schools.
Parents expressed concerns that there should not be a reduction in the quality of their children’s education and that access to these subjects should not become ‘elitist’.
Vice Chair of the Comhairle’s Policy and Resources Committee Roddy Mackay, who hosted the meeting, agreed wholeheartedly with that view.
In fact a suggestion was put forward at the meeting that the skills of Itinerant teachers may not be lost to Island pupils, even if this budget saving went ahead.
There is a proposal that these specialist teachers could remain in schools but instead of being supported by this current Itinerant Teacher funding pot be absorbed into the general pool of primary school teachers and funded via this budget stream.
Further budget consultation meetings will take place in Castlebay tonight (Tuesday) at 7pm; on Wednesday in Daliburgh, South Uist and in Paible North Uist at 7pm and on Thursday in the Council Chamber in Stornoway at 7pm.
There is also to be a Facebook chat with the Comhairle Leader Angus Campbell on Friday evening from 7 to 8pm.
Read more reaction to the proposals and feedback from the consultation meetings in this week’s issue of the Stornoway Gazette out on Thursday, January 21st.