Covid restrictions have been blamed for a £122,800 shortfall in Moray Council’s licensing budgets.
A drop in income from fees and an increase in legal costs are partly to blame for the deficit.
However, at meetings of both the licensing committee and licensing board on Wednesday, questions were asked over why the mail room bill had risen by £32,000 and £33,000 respectively over the last financial year, totalling £65,000.
Committee member and independent councillor for Forres George Alexander said: “The charges from the mail house have risen astronomically.
“It’s by £32,000. I just wonder why the mail charges are up so much?”
Shutdown created a backlog
Senior solicitor Sean Hoath told committee the service had been extremely busy dealing with work that had backed up because of lockdown, but that cost had come as “a bit of a surprise”.
He said: “Income is reduced because the overall number of applications has reduced, while the services concerned with licensing kept going over that period.
“While there was a shutdown that created a backlog.
“We are trying to understand the mail room issues and we are in contact with them about that.
“It did come as a bit of a surprise.”
With figures calculated over a 36-month time frame, the committee budget shortfall ending financial year 2020-21 stands at £64,553.
The deficit for the period ending 2019-20 was £77.
While the committee issues licences for taxi drivers, window cleaners and street traders the board mainly deals with those for the sale and supply of alcohol.
At the board meeting this afternoon, Conservative councillor for Elgin North Frank Brown said: “This mail room figure is no small amount, it can’s simply be postage I’m sure.”
Mr Hoath said mail room staff process early applications before sending them on to legal services.
He added: “The mail room indicated that the quality of applications has gone down causing a lot of time chasing up information.
“We are hoping this is an anomalous year and the state of the service will be back to normal next year.”
He agreed to come back to members with more information on the increase in mail room costs.
Full-scale review scheduled for 2022
The shortfall in the board’s budget for the year 2020-21 is £58,303.
In accordance with legislation, as far as possible licensing authorities should be self-funding and costs recovered through fees.
A full-scale review of all licensing fees is carried out every five years with the next scheduled for 2022.
With local government elections to be held in May next year, committee member and Conservative councillor for Keith and Cullen Donald Gatt raised concerns that the shortfall could “handicap” a new council.
Members of both the committee and the board agreed there should be no change in licensing charges, and for a full revision of the fees structure to go-ahead next year.