Voluntary redundancies and AI could help Watford Borough Council balance its budget for 2024/25.

The Hertfordshire authority has plans to raise council tax, introduce artificial intelligence (AI) in the customer services department and cease the out-of-hours stray dog service, in an effort to balance the books.

Finance chiefs underestimated how much the council would spend in the current 2023/24 financial year when they set the budget in winter last year.

They will bust the original £14.96 million net day-to-day services budget by £3.34m when the financial year ends in April, according to a forecast.

“There is a general uncertain economic environment,” said Councillor Mark Watkin (LD, Nascot), who introduced the 2024/25 budget to his cabinet colleagues at a meeting on Monday, January 15.

He said “very hardworking staff” are being asked to consider voluntary redundancies.

“This is not the place we would like to be in,” Cllr Watkin added.

“We hope we may not need to go to compulsory redundancies.”

Draft budget documents reveal the authority would like to raise its share of council tax by 2.99 per cent – the maximum it can without holding a referendum.

It means residents in “average” band D properties will put £299.55 towards borough council services in 2024/25.

In a list of savings, the authority has proposed reducing the number of customer service staff by one full-time equivalent post and introducing new technology such as a webchat or AI system.

The process would save £24,000 per year in 2025/26 onwards.

Ending the out-of-hours stray dog service would save £15,000 per year.

A new planting scheme involving shrubs rather than seasonal bedding could save £12,000 each year, and a reduction in flower towers and hanging baskets would reduce costs by a further £9,000.

Bus shelter advertisements could bring in £77,000 per year from 2025/26, the draft notes.

Commercial income, including from Watford Business Park, could add £800,000 to council budgets each year in the medium term.

“We are facing our greatest financial challenge yet and we are facing that now,” Cllr Watkin said.

He said the budget was set against a backdrop of local authorities filing section 114 notices, which means their budgets are unbalanced and they must halt non-essential spending – including borough councils along the M25 motorway covering Woking, Surrey and Thurrock, Essex.

“That is not the case in Watford,” he added.

According to meeting papers, the overspend in 2023/24 will be met using reserves including an economic impact reserve, plus a fees and charges rise which came into force earlier in January.