Council “in danger of running out of money”

Council Tax in the district is set to rise

Council Tax in the district is set to rise - Credit: Archant

Councillors and members of the public have raised concerns about the financial position at St Neots Town Council.

An extraordinary meeting was held on Monday night to approve cost savings, which means less money for public events and a reduction in the grass cutting service, in an attempt to balance the books.

There will also be 17.5 per cent rise in the council tax precept, compared to a national average last year of 4.9 per cent for town and parish councils.

The council is sitting on £233,000 in general reserves, a figure well below recommendations set by the National Association of Local Councils of a minimum of three months expenditure, which should give a figure of at least £432,000.

A member of the public stood up to speak at the meeting and accused the council of failing to show “real leadership”.

Bill Hodges, of Eynesbury, told the chamber: “You must take responsibility for this and not just by demanding more council tax, but by showing real leadership and taking the difficult decisions to get us back on an even keel. It must be remembered that the money the council spends isn’t their money, it is our money and we don’t want it wasted.”

Cllr Gordon Thorpe also raised concerns about the general reserves, and said: “The reserves are far below the recommended level and that gives me some concern.”

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He went on to warn members that once the budget was set they would have to stand by the decision.

He said: “Once the budget is set, that is it. There will be no magic money fairy and if we don’t control the budget we are in danger of running out of money.”

Cllr Sandie Giles described a £12,000 cut to the grass cutting service as “drastic”. Cllr Giles suggested reinstating some of the money for this, but was unable to gain support from fellow councillors and told them they should be “ready to take the flack from residents”.

The council’s budget determines its share of the council tax charge for the next financial year and in December, councillors drew up an eye-watering council tax increase of 35.54 per cent. Members of the full council refused to approve the rise, however, and an amended budget with thousands of pounds of cost savings and an increase of 17.5 per cent was finally approved at the meeting.

The fire service has already announced it will increase its precept by up to three per cent and Cambridgeshire police have indicated its “preferred” increase is likely to be around 12 per cent. Cambridgeshire County Council has still to release details, but is known to be struggling financially. Before the vote, Cllr Thorpe advised his fellow councillors not to think about the percentage figure.

“It is about 79p per week so think about the actual cost. It is virtually nothing.”

Town mayor and chairman of the council, Barry Chapman, told the meeting: “There has been lots of talk about ‘this only amounts to the price of a cup of coffee’, but those who will be hit hardest are the people who are not entitled to council tax support. People have a choice about whether they buy a cup of coffee, they don’t have a choice about paying council tax.”

There were 14 councillors present and apart from Cllr Sandie Giles, who abstained, they voted in favour of the budget.