By Ben Bell
I DO ENJOY a good puzzle.
I can probably trace this interest back to the 1980s when as a teenager I bought my first Rubik’s cube.
Many days, even weeks, were spent twisting and spinning the coloured squares in various combinations with one ultimate goal in mind, that of solving this often frustrating puzzle.
More recently, it is jigsaws that have captured my interest.
The enjoyment for me comes from upending an entire box of jigsaw pieces and seeing hundreds, if not thousands of individual, oddly shaped pieces spill across the dining room table and the knowledge that all these pieces will somehow fit together to make a single image.
The way I approach jigsaw puzzles is probably similar to that strategy adopted by many other people in that I start with what I consider to be the easier pieces – corners and edges – and work inwards from there.
As a councillor, I approach the review of the Shire of Toodyay’s annual budget in much of a similar way given the large number of individual pieces (in this case, cost items) that need to fit smoothly together in order to form a single, coherent and balanced budget.
I start first with what many may consider the easiest piece of the budget – the shire’s annual wages bill.
I say it is the easiest part because according to information provided by the WA Department of Local Government, the number of people employed by the Shire of Toodyay has not changed materially over the past four or five years.
By my reckoning, that should mean therefore that the shire’s wages bill should also not change much from year to year.
I accept that there may be modest increases each year due to staff pay rises and the like, but the overall figures shouldn’t change that much, yes?
To my surprise though, what I found, was that despite the overall number of shire employees being relatively stable since at least 2014, the amount of money allocated in the shire budget to employee costs has ballooned over the same period to a point that these payments now consume around 70 per cent of the entire revenue the shire raises each year through rates.
Four years ago, the shire’s total wages bill for its staff was $2.9 million.
Fast forward to today and the shire’s latest budget indicates that it will pay out more than $4.5 million in staff wages and other employee costs this year, meaning that the wages bill has increased by more than 50 per cent over past four years alone.
If you stop and think about that for a moment, these figures appear to suggest that shire employees have received a 12 per cent pay rise every year since 2014.
Clearly this is not the case at all.
The reality is that shire personnel have seen their pay packets rise by around only three per cent a year.
I continue to support this level of pay rises for shire staff and do not have any issues with it.
It does however raise an important question.
If shire employees are seeing their pay packets rise by only three per cent a year, why does the shire budget show that the wages bill is growing at around 12 per cent a year?
Where is the extra money going?
My calculations suggest that the gap between what the shire will pay its employees this year in wages and other benefits such as superannuation, leave payments and allowances for staff meetings and training, and the amount stated in the actual budget – the amount requested by the CEO and subsequently approved by council last month – is at least $600,000.
In other words, there is more than $600,000 in this year’s shire budget that appears to be unaccounted for at present.
Now that is a lot of money in anyone’s language.
What is equally concerning is that the shire’s long-term financial plan, which the council approved last month, suggests also that the shire’s wage bill will continue to grow and consume more and more ratepayers’ money each year despite there being no obvious evidence that the number of people employed by the shire will rise.
As a result, the current gap between the shire’s actual wages bill and the amount stated in the budget is set to increase further.
Now I am pretty good with numbers and figures but despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find an explanation for the so-called missing money.
Acknowledging that there may be a plausible reason for the apparent discrepancies, I reached out to the shire about a month ago and asked for its assistance in an attempt to understand if I had overlooked something – to find the missing piece of the puzzle, so to speak.
I included a complete copy of my budget spreadsheet – including cost codes and descriptions – and kindly asked for my numbers to be checked and confirm whether my maths were correct.
After all, my spreadsheet indicates that there is something like $2.35 million that I have been unable to find when reviewing shire budgets for the last four years.
Unfortunately to date I have been unable to obtain an explanation of where this ‘missing’ money has been spent.
In fact, when I asked questions about the apparent discrepancy in the finances, the shire deemed my questions and request for assistance to be “out of order”.
So here we are puzzled and unable presently to account for millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money.