Council tax freeze for Rutland County Council hangs in balance

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RUTLAND County Council is facing a month of key talks as it draws up this year’s budget.

The council is deep in discussion with the Government about a potential council tax freeze which would be supplemented by a £520,000 grant.

The council will collect £20.8m in tax for the current financial year ending in March. The Government has agreed to pay the equivalent of a 2.5 per cent tax increase to all local authorities that freeze their rates for 2012/13.

But council leader Roger Begy (Con), who represents the Greetham ward, said a number of factors were influencing the council’s decision.

“The heart says we want to take the freeze,” he said. “But if we look at the funding over the next six years we have to say that a hard-hearted business decision is that we shouldn’t take it.

“We have approached the Government with a number of issues. If they can answer them it will enable the decision to be easier.”

Coun Begy is primarily concerned with the situation at RAF Cottesmore. The air force will move out in March but in July 640 Army personnel and their families will move in.

Government funding for the next school year is calculated on the number of pupils enrolled at the end of June. But the influx of military families in July will not be included in that calculation.

Coun Begy said: “That is 240 families, a lot with children. The Government is expecting us to fund children for the next school year and is not giving us anything to fund them with.”

The council could also lose out on tax. The Ministry of Defence pays a council tax contribution to local authorities on behalf of its bases. But this is calculated in February so the council would lose further funding once the army moves in.

Coun Begy is hopeful an agreement can be reached and the Government will provide funds to cater for the Army personnel.

He said: “We are hopeful progress will be made. If they give us that money it makes it easier to make our decision on the council tax freeze.”

Despite the questions surrounding the tax freeze, Coun Begy says this year’s budget is relatively simple to decide and no service cuts are planned.

But the council is having to look at the bigger picture and see where it could be in three or four years.

Coun Begy added: “For this year the Government will give us £0.52m. Next year that disappears. A council tax increase of 2.5 per cent then would take us back to where we are this year.

“We are focusing on how the discussions impact on where we are in three or four years time.”

Adjustments may also have to be made to deal with the Government’s plan to make local authorities responsible for handling council tax benefits from 2013.

Currently, about £2m in tax benefits is handed out to Rutland residents. But the Government wants that figure to be cut by 10 per cent from 2013.

Coun Begy said: “They are going to cut our budget by 10 per cent and we are expected to be a lot stricter.

“We are supposed to protect the young, the vulnerable and the elderly. There are not too many left in the middle.

“A lot of discussion is going on nationally. We may decide we can’t save the full 10 per cent so will have to fund the difference.”

Budget proposals were discussed in a special meeting of the people scrutiny panel on Wednesday and Thursday. Negotiations with the Government are ongoing and the final budget will be decided at a meeting at the council offices at 7pm on February 20.