Cheshire looks like heading for an increase in Council Tax this spring of almost 5% - but will we end up suffering damaging service cuts as a result? As all three political parties at County Hall issue their budget statements, the Tory administration inevitably blames Labour Government policy for the dilemma, while Labour and LiberalDemocrat leaders predictably claim the Tories are at fault for the way they are running Cheshire. Here the party leaders have their say.
COUNCIL Tax bills will rise by double the rate of inflation for the third year running.
As predicted by the Chronicle in December, South Cheshire residents face yet another hike well above the amount they can expect their income to increase.
The average Band D household could fork out £1,275 over the next 12 months to fund services such as education, waste collection and the police, while Band B home owners, the most common band in Crewe, will pay about £990 a year.
The latest bad news for residents comes in the wake of a better-than-expected Government funding settlement for Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council, allowing it to increase its Council Tax share by just 2.7%.
But after several years of low rises, Tory-controlled Cheshire County Council, which commands 75% of Council Tax income, has warned it faces a choice between service cuts and increasing its precept by about 5%.
Borough councillor Maurice Jones, whose draft budget is due to be recommended to the executive board of Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council tomorrow, said: 'In the medium term we are looking at another three years where we don't expect to raise our Council Tax share above 3%. It's a bit difficult with the elected mayor hanging over us, but at the moment the administration is working.'
By contrast, Cheshire County Council's board has been blasted for its management of finances, with Labour group leader Cllr Derek Bateman slamming 'artificially' low Council Tax increases.
Cheshire Police Authority chairman Peter Nurse has warned of a 'between 5% and 9%' increase.
But Cheshire Fire Authority was pleased to announce an increase in its share of just 3%.
Liberal Democrats - Sue Proctor
THE old and vulnerable of Cheshire will suffer as a result of the Tories' 'live now, pay later' budget, claims the county's Liberal Democrat leader.
County councillor Sue Proctor criticised service cuts proposed in libraries, road safety, protection from rogue traders, tackling crime, waste minimisation, Rights of Way and bus services.
She highlighted 'massive' proposed increases in care fees for elderly and vulnerable people and extra charges for church school transport and 16+ school transport. Cllr Proctor further attacked the Conservative group's 'unsustainable' record of borrowing, use of reserves 'to keep Council Tax down' and use of grants 'to plug gaps'.
'The Tories have created a 'live now, pay later' budget - and it is the people of Cheshire who will pay,' she said.
She accused the Conservatives of 'misleading' the Cheshire public over its claim to have invested £33m into this year's draft budget.
'Over £19m is ring-fenced funding from central Government for schools,' she said. 'Taking into account other factors such as service cuts and increased charges, the real investment is just £3.1m - one tenth of that figure.
'This lack of investment will not meet the growing needs of Cheshire's ageing population.
'Where savings targets set for departments are not achieved by cuts, massive increases in charges are planned.
'The old and vulnerable will suffer most.'
Cllr Proctor also attacked the administration's record of low Council Tax increases.
Labour - Derek Bateman
CHESHIRE'S Labour leader Derek Bateman attacked the Conservative administration's budget proposals, accusing it of 'mismanagement and breathtaking ineptitude'.
And he alleged an abuse of Government funding had removed the opportunity to employ an additional 70 teachers across the county.
He said: 'Now we have seen the draft proposals and heard the Conservatives' lamentable excuses during the halfhearted budget consultation process, it seems sadly we were correct.'
'Their failure to properly and prudently invest in modern, cost-effective and customer-focused public services means they are left with a funding gap.'
Labour claims the Tories have chosen to 'simply, artificially and temporarily' lower Council Tax and spending.
'It's clear the council is failing to maintain its 'excellent' status,' said Cllr Bateman.
'We're now a three-star council while most other large councils enjoy a four-star status.'
The Labour Group further accuses the Tories of 'misusing' a 6.6% increase in the Dedicated Schools Grant provided by the Government for pupil funding. It's claimed the Tory administration has instead used up to £2.8m to relieve pressure on other, non-school, areas of the education budget.
Cllr Bateman said: 'Had this been spent as intended as many as 70 extra teachers could have been employed.'
Labour has also focused on a shortfall in budget provision for adults with special needs, a total of £2.3m. A shortfall of almost £5m in what is required just to balance this year's budget has been allocated, it says.
'There was also evidence of poor management on the capital front,' said Cllr Bateman. 'The capital budget is insufficient to meet all capital demands now facing the council.'
Conservative - Paul Findlow
CHESHIRE'S Council Taxpayers are being victimised by the Government's 'inequitable and oppressive' redistribution of grants, the county council's Tory administration claims.
Tory leader Paul Findlow reveals a 'well nigh impossible' financial situation in his introduction to the administration's budget proposals, still under discussion.
Cheshire's ruling Tories have levied the lowest Council Tax rise of any English shire over the last four years but now find themselves trapped between a massive funding shortfall and Whitehall's threat to cap authorities exceeding 5%.
Cllr Findlow said: 'The stark fact is that whilst local authority inflation stands at over 5%, the Government has allowed Cheshire a trifling 1.1%.
'This is a well nigh impossible situation and signifies an inequitable and oppressive redistribution of grant away from the shires in favour of the metropolitan areas.'
Cllr Findlow said the Government's resource equalisation policy has cost Cheshire £17m, and is estimated to rise to £22m next year.
He said while schools have fared better than other services, Cheshire is still penalised with the Government clawing back grant, because it has in the past topped up inadequate funding from the Council Tax.
He said: 'Whatever the outcome, our final Council Tax figure will not exceed the Govern-ment's capping limit and will ensure bills levied on taxpayers remain among the lowest in the country over the last five years.'