DEVON and Somerset residents will pay more towards the fire service from April to avoid ‘significant cuts’ to services.
Members of the Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Authority met today, Wednesday, to vote on the 2023/4 budget and whether to increase its share of council tax by an annual average of £5 for a band D property.
Councillors overwhelmingly backed the plans, meaning the precept will go up by 5.45 per cent to £96.79 (band D) over the year.
The fire service receives around four per cent of total household council tax payments. The average £5 rise is on top of other increases proposed by councils and the police.
Recommending the rise, director of finance Shayne Scott said freezing the council tax rate would mean a £3.1 million shortfall in the £85 million budget that would have to be taken out of reserves.
‘As treasurer, I would then very promptly advise you to move the executive to a position of implementing significant cuts to the service,’ he warned if the rate had been frozen.
Mr Scott acknowledged it was a ‘difficult decision’ members were being asked to make. ‘None of us are divorced from the reality of what our constituent taxpayers are facing in terms of cost-of-living pressures.’
But he claimed the service received ‘overwhelmingly positive’ consultation responses from the community, adding: ‘They feel Devon and Somerset represents value-for-money and that it’s an insurance policy worth paying.’
In approving the budget, councillors also gave permission for the authority to increase its budget from reserves to meet the potential added cost of a staff pay award, the negotiations for which are still ongoing.
Backing the proposal, Councillor Rob Hannaford (Labour) said: ‘The choice is very clear; do we put up our part of the council tax I think in a responsible way with this round sum of £5, which I think most people – certainly in my area – will find acceptable and reasonable.
‘Or do we do, in my view, the irresponsible thing to go for a [freeze]. It’s not sustainable, it’s not sustainable in terms of the pay award, and I’m very concerned about cuts to frontline services which we will have to do if we don’t agree this.’
Cllr Hannaford admitted the service still had to make ‘difficult decisions’ but said: ‘To me, it’s the difference between making difficult decisions and a disastrous decision.’
Independent North Devon and county councillor Frank Biederman supported the increase, despite telling the meeting that he ‘absolutely hates the idea of putting people’s council tax up.’
But he added: ‘Our service is really valued, our firefighters do an incredible job and we all want one to turn up at that moment.’
Cllr Biederman also said a 20 per cent cut in government funding for the fire service in the last eight years – £23.8 million next year compared to £29.4 million in 2015/16 – has ‘pushed us in this position.’
The vast majority of members approved the plans, with one abstention.