Wealthy council urged to keep tax down

ONE of the country's richest councils faced renewed calls last night to keep council tax rises down – as new figures revealed the extent of its bulging coffers.

ONE of the country's richest councils faced renewed calls last night to keep council tax rises down – as new figures revealed the extent of its bulging coffers.

David Nettleton, a St Edmundsbury Borough Council councillor, said the authority's bills were "already more than enough" for residents to pay.

He was speaking after new figures revealed a surplus of cash in a fund dedicated to dealing with emergencies.

Mr Nettleton, who leads the authority's Real Independent group, said tax "cannot keep going up forever".

His comments come after data showed cash in the council's general fund reserve, designed for coping with any crisis, currently stood at £3.2m – nearly double the £1.75m required.

But Graham Moore, the body's finance chief, said the large reserves allowed the council to subside tax bills, with £900,000 being spent this year to keep rises to a minimum.

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"Why have we got such a large surplus of £3.2m when the chief financial officer says we only need £1.75m?" said Mr Nettleton, who was elected in 2003 after pledging to protect the public purse.

"We are paying more than enough in council tax anyway. The argument is that the borough takes only a small percentage, and that is correct, but bills are already too much.

"It goes up each year by more than people are getting in pay rises, so people are paying a higher proportion of their disposable income to the council in tax.

"But it cannot keep going up forever. We have got to address the issue of how to stop politicians taking money off people when they have not got the wherewithal to pay."

The council has earmarked £10m of its capital fund, which stands at £75m, to a major improvement project in Haverhill and a further £10m to the new public building on Bury St Edmunds' Cattle Market site.

"I can never quite nail the council down as to why they have got so much money," added Mr Nettleton. "As we have paid it in the first instance, why should we keep paying over and above the average pay rise?

"We all have to look long term and see where we are going in five to ten years time. The argument is that we cannot have a low council tax this year as it would have to be put up next year, but there has never been any evidence produced for that."

But Mr Moore said that the general reserve cash was necessary to counteract the impact of council tax rises in the future.

"As chief finance officer, I have to advise the council on what I consider the minimum level of reserves should be and the external auditor comments on whether we have enough or not," he said.

"We are in the position of having to find savings over the next three years to have lower council tax rises. If we cannot identify them in the year, then we have the higher level of reserves to give us the ability to deliver more reasonable council tax rises over a longer period of time.

"If we do not find all the savings we need, we can use some reserves to prevent us having to take drastic action or unpopular decisions.

"When we set the council tax this year, we aimed to take nearly £900,000 out of the reserves. It made a significant difference to the council tax level."

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