Councillors Delay Decision On Fees As Scilly’s Airport Running Out Of Money
Scilly’s airport is about to run out of money. But a chaotic meeting held on Friday to deal with the urgent cash situation and agree a new charging structure was abandoned half way through because Council management failed to provide the financial papers in time.
And members argued about whether a budget needed to be set at all.
Cllr Steve Sims, chairing the meeting, warned that the airport could have to reduce operational hours from April if the situation isn’t fixed.
The meeting heard that the airport will have just £15,000 left in its reserves by the end of March.
It started the financial year with £250,000, but £100,000 was paid towards the Lagan refurbishment work.
And a further £127,000 was overspent because the Council had to bring in agency air traffic controllers after several staff members left last year.
At the special Transport Committee meeting on Friday, councillors were asked to approve increases in landing charges of between 10% and 20%.
But they’ve delayed making a decision because they say they didn’t get enough time to review the financial details.
The budget papers were only sent out the day before and some councillors complained they’d only picked them up when they arrived at the meeting.
It led to a call by Cllr Robert Dorrien Smith to adjourn the meeting. He said he’d had no chance to look at the figures.
But that appeared to cause problems because it affected the timetable of financial approvals required before the new Council year in April.
Cllr Sims warned “if we leave this to the end of April we will be running for four days a week, because there’ll be no money.”
He wanted to give councillors an hour to digest the data. Some members argued that wasn’t enough time for such a critical matter.
Council Chief Exec Theo Leijser warned that the airport is a ‘trading account’ so is not allowed legally to use taxpayers money to fill any shortfall in budgets.
He said they’d be required to borrow money with the additional costs falling to the Council.
Cllr Dorrien Smith also wanted to defer any changes to fees until officers had consulted with the one operator at the airport, Skybus.
“It’s been left too late and there’s no consultation” said Robert, who felt the airline could offer some changes in practice that would help the situation at the airport.
That was supported by Cllr Marian Bennett, who said it was a legal requirement by the CAA to talk to customers about potential increases in landing charges.
But Senior Manager for Finance, Laura Roberts, told Marian that it was not correct, legislatively or morally, to engage with a commercial operator on setting fees.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” said Marian.
Robert wanted to focus on potential sources of income, like an increase in passenger numbers this season and controlling outgoings.
But Laura said the airport “can’t base its budget on inflated volumes when there’s no evidence for it.”
“The real problem is the Council’s failure to control costs at the airport” said Cllr Dorrien Smith, “and if the knee jerk reaction is to simply say woops, oh dear, lets charge more to the travelling public, that’s not a good way to go on.”
Marian went a stage further, saying “we never get to grips with the service that’s provided and the cost. Why should our visitors pay for mismanagement that adds to the cost?”
Marian felt the airport is “the most vital of public services” and “as important as social services and water.”
But Chief Executive Theo Leijser said he took “serious issue” with the accusation of mismanagement.
He said the facility has been peer reviewed by an independent agency and scrutinised by the CAA and both say there are no further cost savings in staff that can be made, while still having a safe airport.
And he went on to say that there was “no logical link” between the fees charged by the airport and Skybus’ fares. When fees were frozen last year, fares increased for passengers, he said.
Cllr Sims said even if all the increase was passed on to the passenger, it would only amount to £1.40. “That’s half a cup of coffee,” he said.
Council Chairman Amanda Martin effectively took over the running of the meeting as Chairman Steve Sims lost control.
Following her two prompts, and almost 45 minutes after Cllr Dorrien Smith first proposed that the meeting be adjourned, a motion was finally passed to delay the decision.
Councillors will now meet again on Thursday to consider their next move but not all members were happy about rescheduling, as not everyone present on Friday can make it later this week.