£7.6m overspend in council care service
SOARING numbers of vulnerable children and adults needing social care have left a council facing an overspend of more than £7.6 million.
Staffordshire County Council faces a race to balance its books as rising demand for care services puts a strain on its budgets.
The Conservative-controlled authority, which has to make savings of £120 million over four years, says it is now attempting to bring its spending into the black.
And leaders insist they will stick to their pledge to freeze council tax next year.
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Plans include trying to cut the number of costly out-of-area placements for children needing care.
There are also proposals for carrying out a full review of care needs in the county, and attempting to invest in proactive support which can prevent residents needing formal care.
But the authority is legally required to provide care services and will have to find extra savings in other departments to cover the short-term pressure.
County councillor Ian Parry, cabinet member for finance, education and skills, said: "It's not a vast proportion of the overall budget, but £7.6 million is a lot of money in any context.
"There are things which affect us that are outside our immediate control.
"We know how much we're going to spend on highways and libraries and all of those areas of the budget are tightly-controlled and well on track.
"But there are areas where people make demands upon council services – people who are becoming elderly and require more support, suffer a disability or illness, people that need our help.
"That can't be accurately predicted.
"We need to find better ways of spending the money we've got and supporting people to become more independent so they don't become a drain on a dwindling central fund."
Figures show the Staffordshire Partnership Trust, which provides adult social care, is £3.9 million over-budget due to funding cuts and the obligation to cover a shortfall in the private sector capacity to provide home care.
Children's services is facing a £4 million overspend due to rising numbers of 'looked after' children.
It will increase by a further £900,000 if demand continues at current rates for the rest of the financial year.
Councillor Christina Jebb, leader of the authority's opposition Liberal Democrats, said: "The overspend is a concern and we have got to look at it and make sure it is managed.
"But the overriding priority always has to be the children and adults who need the care.
"We have to do what is right for them and provide the type of care they need, even if that means other items in the budget have to be reviewed.
"Increasing council tax would have to be a last resort because so many people in the county are suffering the effects of the downturn."
The Sentinel reported earlier this year how Stoke-on-Trent City Council is attempting to recruit more foster carers to drive down its own predicted overspend on children's care.
Above-expected demand means the authority's £6.9 million budget for placing children in out-of-city or independent foster or residential care is expected to be exceeded by more than £2 million.
And that projected overspend could rise to £3.5 million by the end of the financial year if the 169 children remain outside the city.