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York council tax to rise 1.9 per cent as budget decided
COUNCIL tax bills and parking fees in York are to rise after city leaders saw controversial budget plans approved last night.
Proposals by City of York Council's ruling Labour group to reject a Government grant allowing council tax to be frozen in 2013/14 have been voted through at a heated Guildhall meeting, meaning a 1.9 per cent increase for residents next year - the second rise in a row.
Hourly charges for council-run car parks will go up by 20p for residents and 10p for visitors from April, while York's parks will be left unlocked to save £74,000 over two years despite 1,400 people signing a petition opposing this. Road-sweeping and streetlighting budgets will also be cut.
The authority must save £20 million by 2015, with 242 jobs set to be axed during this time. Labour said the council tax rise would equate to 38p a week for the average resident and would provide £1.5 million towards additional adult social care funding next year.
The group said its plans would also mean £48.4 million for 18 schemes over the next five years, including helping elderly and disabled people live at home, new council houses and reducing overcrowding in council properties. More money has also been pledged for repairs to roads, riverbanks and the Bar Walls and for highway drainage.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats called for the council tax freeze grant to be accepted and proposed changes to garden waste collections, possibly including charges, to be dropped. Together with the Greens, they also called for the reversal of plans to stop locking parks, but budget amendments tabled by opposition parties were voted down.
During his speech, council leader Coun James Alexander argued with a heckler from the public gallery. Meanwhile, Green councillors Andy D'Agorne and Dave Taylor stormed out of the final moments of the meeting after a proposal for council rules to be altered so it could continue beyond 10pm - allowing time for the Greens' budget proposals to be debated - was voted down. Coun Taylor described the situation as "disgraceful" as he and Coun D'Agorne left the council chamber.
Coun Alexander said councils were facing "unprecedented" Government funding reductions and Labour had "not flinched from making tough decisions". He claimed York had been treated unfairly compared to councils elsewhere in the UK, but adult social care was being protected and facilities such as children's centres, swimming pools and libraries were not closing.
"We were elected, in part, on a platform of protecting local services, and because of the budget decision we made last year [to increase council tax rather than accept a Government freeze grant] and the decision we propose tonight, we will protect £2.7 million of services this year," he said.
"The Government's freeze money is a one-off and the consequence is further cuts or larger increases in council tax in the future. We know our decisions will protect more services - this is not a political decision."
Coun Alexander said he realised not locking parks was a proposal "many people feel very strongly about" and the council would ensure alternatives were considered, including local volunteers taking on the duties. But he added: "I cannot, hand on heart, say we can prioritise spending tens of thousands of pounds each year on this service when other more critical services are under so much pressure.
"I can't promise there won't be more decisions down the line which we won't want to take. But I am more convinced than ever that we must make decisions now, not just for the short-term, but in the medium and long-term interests of our city and its residents. We will do everything we can to secure the future York deserves."
Conservative leader Coun Ian Gillies, whose group also opposed higher parking charges, said Labour had "never really answered the difficult questions" about which services the council should provide, saying: "Essential services are pared to the bone while pet projects flourish.
"Labour put up council tax last year, they're putting it up again, and we believe the cost to residents is greater than the perceived gain to council finances."
Coun Gillies said Labour's approach to the budget was "more spending, more borrowing and more debt". On his group's proposals, he said the Conservatives wanted to spend £1.4 million earmarked for a digital media centre on preserving Guildhall instead because it would "help protect this historic building for the future", and said raising parking charges was "unfair to residents and will add to the reasons not to come to York for visitors". He also said proposals for a review of waste services would ultimately lead to higher landfill tax bills, saying: "You couldn't make it up."
Lib Dem leader Coun Carol Runciman said: "Labour cannot continually complain about cuts and plead poverty then turn down Government money to freeze council tax, hitting the pockets of local people instead.
"The overriding priorities of the Liberal Democrats are to protect frontline services and help residents, not borrow more money and have to pay more interest for ever and a day."
Lib Dem councillor Ann Reid said Labour were "spending on vanity projects while pretending they have no choice in cutting services", with her party saying more money should be spent on road repairs and cuts to litter and salt bins and ward committee funding should be reversed. Her fellow councillor Nigel Ayre said Labour's budget contained "broken promises and flawed policies", telling the meeting: "Councillors have a simple choice - to protect fundamental services residents deserve and are entitled to, or continue to put the needs of residents below those of Coun Alexander's binge-spending bandwagon."
A copy of the speech Coun D'Agorne planned to make on his party's budget proposals, which could not be debated and which led to he and Coun Taylor leaving the meeting before it finished, was given to The Press. In it, Coun D'Agorne said he supported the "small" council tax increase to avoid "an even more dramatic cut" to services when the Government freeze grant ended.
However, he criticised growing outsourcing of council services and plans to put libraries under the control of a social enterprise, saying the authority should be "putting a brake on the privatisation process". His group's proposals included using £300,000 from the council's Economic Infrastructure Fund to form a council-owned renewable energy company to boost green jobs, and more money for bus services and supporting small businesses.