Councillors wary of tax increase before election

Friday 6th February 2015 12:00 am

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South Hams councillors are refusing to increase the district's share of council tax this year because it would make the Tory-run local authority look bad.

The council has been trumpeting the massive savings it is making in a major shake up which had meant axing scores of staff.

However, the executive has been warned that pegging the council tax for the coming financial year will only store up problems for the budget in future.

But council leader John Tucker said: 'It would be difficult for the public to see the big numbers that we are saving and then see the council tax go up. We have to be a little careful.'

The executive had been given the choice of pegging the district council's share of the council tax to the current average of £145.42 a year or shoving it up by 1.9 per cent to £148.18 a year – an increase of £2.76 a year.

The final council tax decision will be made by a full meeting of South Hams Council next Thurs­day.

But the Conserv­ative-run executive is recommending the council refuses to raise the district's tax bills – partly funded with the help of a one-off tax-freeze grant on offer from the Govern­ment of almost £58,000.

The recommendation flies in the face of one put forward last month by a joint meeting of the district council's scrutiny panels, which recommended the 1.9 increase.

Liberal Democrat councillor Cathie Pannel warned that the one-off grant would not be there in future years as she said she was 'disappointed' that the executive had not gone for the 1.9 per cent increase.

She said the increase was 'minimal' and warned: 'The money we get from the Government is a one-off payment and it will not enable us to get ahead of the game and prevent us from always being on the back foot.

'It may disappear altogether and we will be even further back in future years.'

She said that although the increase was small, it would mean the district council gained a little for its budget each year.

South Hams Council is looking at saving more than £1,800,000 from the changes it is making to staffing levels and the way it runs the council in the coming financial year.

Tory Cllr Rufus Gilbert said: 'We have stood up and advertised the savings for this council and then we say that we are going to put up the council tax. I find that difficult to square.'

And he added: 'At the end of the day it is about perception and perception carries more weight than logic.'

Liberal Democrat Keith Baldry pointed out: 'This is an election year,' while Tory Cllr Mike Saltern said the council should be 'applauded' for not increasing its share of council tax bills.

A pegged council tax would see the council raising a total of £5,323,372 through the tax bills. A 1.9 per cent increase would raise £5,424,407.

Other savings the council is looking at making for the coming financial year include £150,000 on waste management and £15,000 from cutting grant aid to the Visit South Devon tourism group. The council is also expecting increased income from its employment estates, planning applications and a rise in interest rates.

On the downside, the cash coming from its car parks has been falling for the last three years and the expected income for the coming financial year has had to be cut by £50,000.

On top of that, Dartmouth Lower Ferry has not bounced back from the closure for slipway rebuilding almost two years ago.

A report to the executive revealed income could be more than £150,000 'under budget' and said the expected income could be reduced by £50,000 a year over the next three years.

The executive did agree to include £10,000 in its budget that would go to continue helping to support the Citizens Advice Bureau.

However, an appeal for a similar sum to be handed to the South Hams CVS in the coming year was rejected.

Instead, it was suggested councillors had a 'whip round of the left over cash in their locality budgets' – the money they get to give out in local grants – and hand that to volunteer group instead.

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