No doubt prayers of thanks were offered up at Towy Community Church last Sunday that the Lord has yet again provided, and once again in the unlikely forms of Meryl Gravell and Mark James. This week's collection included a bumper £275,000 from the hapless taxpayers of Carmarthenshire, who are lending this sum on top of all the other contributions we have made to Project Xcel.
The deal was reported in this week's Carmarthen Journal and was agreed at the recent meeting of the council's Executive Board. Readers may remember that Cneifiwr had a funny feeling that the church had come back to ask for more.
The article raises many more questions than it answers in terms of the finances of the project, ethical considerations and PR.
Let's start with public relations. The proposals put before the Executive Board on 31 October were, as is so often the case in Carmarthenshire, secret. And a pattern is now beginning to emerge. A few days after decisions are made in closed sessions, a call goes through to a local journalist who is invited along for a chat with chief executive Mr Mark James. Mr James gives the hack a few crumbs of information and the line to follow.
A report will then appear in the local paper with a few snippets of information and a rather longer rationale for the decision as seen from Mr James's perspective. The result is that the chief executive has control of the story, and the news flow is nicely managed. If the journalist wants privileged access and more exclusives, he'd better avoid difficult questions or negative reporting.
The financial aspects of this project also raise questions. The first phase of the project involves the building of a 10 pin bowling alley, at a projected cost of £2.25 million. When the full council was asked to look at this back in May, councillors were told that the church had been asked to identify savings of £250,000 to bring the capital cost down to £2 million.
Councillors were told at the same time that just over £1.7m of funding had been agreed, including a bank loan of £730,000. This left a funding gap of £280,000, which the council filled in the form of a capital grant.
Now we are told that church members have carried out work on the council-owned property which someone (the church?) values at £200,000. We are also told that the total value of grants, including those from the Lottery, amounts to £1.2m.
Mr James told the Journal, "If we didn't approve this [the new loan of £275,000, ed.] we could lose the £1.2 million that they have already accessed in funds from elsewhere."
Mr James seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis here. When he says "we", is he now speaking as the church? And when he says "elsewhere", you might be forgiven for thinking that the number did not include money already given by the council. But it almost certainly does.
In the same story we are told that the new loan of £275,000 was needed because banks were unwilling to lend the full sum originally agreed (presumably £730,000?). A few short breaths later, and we are told, "They are still borrowing far less than intended because of the extra work they have done for themselves."
Somehow these two statements don't match up, do they?
The simple truth would seem to be that the bank did its sums again and realised that the risk was too great to loan £730,000, with the result that the taxpayer has had to jump in and stump up another £275,000.
So far, it seems, nobody has thought to question Mr James about the wisdom of the original decision to purchase the St Ivel creamery site, now valued at £750,000. The valuation is likely to be somewhat lower than the price the council originally paid for the site, given what has happened to commercial property values, and on top of that the council has been paying around £55,000 a year in business rates for the privilege of owning an empty creamery. The cost to council taxpayers so far is probably not far off £1.5m, before we take into consideration the various grants and loans the council is making, plus a probably vast opportunity cost as the church has been given a 99-year lease on very generous terms (i.e. next-to-nothing).
Of course, the problem that we the public have is that it is impossible to make sense of this jumble of conflicting numbers and statements, and Mr James is not about to let us see the real numbers.
Given that all the numbers discussed so far relate to just Phase 1 of the project, and that Phase 2 is likely to cost another £3 million, it is more than likely that we will be asked for further contributions.
The other worrying aspect of this project is the way in which the council apparently sees it as a way of reducing its social services bill. Here is Meryl Gravell:
"If it wasn't for people like that, our social services bill would be even more. It's the biggest social enterprise in Carmarthenshire. That's what we need more of in the future."
We can probably safely assume that the council does not regard providing 10 pin bowling alleys as part of its social services remit. The same presumably applies to cafes, conference centres and performing arts centres. Those make up the vast bulk of the overall estimated £5 million project cost.
Of the activities listed, that leaves just a food bank, debt counselling service and a furniture recycling centre. Not mentioned by Mrs Gravell or Mr James, but on the church's website there is a brief outline of something called "Mercy Ministries".
The county council provides a range of benefits, but its obligations do not include providing food and furniture for the vast majority of social security claimants. That leaves the "Mercy Ministries". Here's what the church says:
Mercy Ministries operates unique residential homes around the world for young women dealing with issues such as eating disorders, self-harming, abuse, depression, unplanned pregnancies and other life controlling issues. It provides a 6 month structured residential based programme free of charge that includes life-skills training and professional counselling based on Christian principles...... It is the vision of Towy Community Church to set up a Mercy Ministries house in Carmarthen to meet the needs of the community.
It is true that in some of these cases the council would sometimes intervene and pick up part of the cost, but these represent only a very small part of the cost of the council's social care bill. Moreover, it is by no means clear whether the proposed Mercy Ministries house is a part of the project which kicks off with the bowling alley.
Is Mrs Gravell saying that the council is happy to hand a part of its statutory responsibilities to an evangelical grouping run by a husband and wife team who are not part of a mainstream religious organisation? Is it "intensely relaxed" at the prospect of young vulnerable people being taken in for a spot of religious indoctrination in return for help?
The council appears to be sleep-walking into a commitment which carries significant risks that are not just measured in pounds and pence.