MELKSHAM Town Council has turned its back on a proposal to borrow £1million to pay for a number of major projects over the next two years in the town, instead voting in favour of a 3% tax increase for the 2022/23 financial year.
The council’s budget increase for 2022/23 allocates £100,000 for park improvements, £50,000 to reopen Bath Road toilets, £75,000 for King George V improvements, and money to upgrade the town’s CCTV.
The town council’s £966,204 budget for 2022/23 – presented to the council as ‘option four’ – results in a rise of almost £5 for a Band D property to £169, compared to £164.08 for the 2021/22 financial year.
The proposal was described by the majority of councillors as a ‘sensible and workable’ budget for the council, compared to the option to borrow up to £1million to pay for a number of major projects, including an overhaul of Melksham’s parks, the reopening of all town centre public toilets, and a new town-wide ‘sophisticated’ CCTV system.
Cllr Claire Forgacs said that she felt the proposal to borrow money would ‘lumber’ the council and the community with a debt for the next 20 years, whilst cllr Simon Crundell warned against borrowing money for assets that will ‘perish’ before the end of the loan.
Cllr Phil Alford added that he felt the council would be heading towards a ‘debt trap’ that could result in a ‘endless cycle of borrowing’.
He said, “We should not be borrowing endlessly to keep on top of [maintenance].”
Instead, the councillor explained that assets such as play areas and parks should be paid for out of the town council’s precept (the proportion of Council Tax paid by residents to the town council).
The loan of up to £1million had originally been proposed alongside a precept freeze, as part of its 2022/23 budget discussions. One of the options presented at the town council meeting was a revised version of ‘option three’, which in addition to the loan of up to £1million, proposed a 13% increase to its precept, because of a recommendation to increase the budget to cover the running costs of the Assembly Hall. A 13% increase to the precept would have resulted in an increase of around £22 a year for a Band D property.
According to the town council’s amenities manager, Hugh Davies, the Assembly Hall budget for 2022/23 needed to be increased from £82,362 to al- most £150,000. The amenities manager described the new Assembly Hall budget as ‘cautious’ because of the ‘many unknowns’ caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In response to the revised figure, mayor cllr Jon Hubbard called for the budget debate to be postponed, allowing for more time to look at the running costs of the Assembly Hall.
However, cllr Alford pushed for the budget debate to be continued, explaining that the running costs of the Assembly Hall could be considered at a later date.
“The problem we have now is that we are being asked to discuss the future of the Assembly Hall and not the budget – they are two different things,” said cllr Alford. “There is no way we can agree a budget when we are second-guessing what we are doing with the Assembly Hall.
Instead, cllr Alford explained that any ‘additional spend’ on the Assembly Hall in the next financial year, beyond the £82,362, could be covered by the council’s earmarked reserves – money set aside by the council for general contingencies.
“We can deal with the Assembly Hall and how we make it a manageable, functional building and to what level we subsidise it, at a later date,” added cllr Alford.
In agreement, cllr Jacqui Crundell said that she felt the Assembly Hall budget should not be increased and that they should ‘work within’ the £82,362 originally proposed.
The 3% budget increase was proposed by cllr Alford and seconded by cllr Crundell. However some councillors appealed for more time to discuss and consider the options.
Cllr Saffi Rabey said that she felt ‘bulldozed’ into making a decision that evening, whilst cllr Jack Oatley said that he thought the council was ‘rushing’ their decision.
Cllr Hubbard told councillors that he felt ‘option four’ was ‘not right’ for the council, and ‘begged’ for more time to discuss bringing a budget option forward that considers the new in- formation shared about the running costs of the Assembly Hall.
“I think it would be insanity for this council to vote on setting its precept tonight, when we do not know the reality of the situation with the Assembly Hall,” said cllr Hubbard.
Them and us
“If we take a vote on option four this evening, we’ ll be forced into a recorded vote, going back to the type of thing when we get a ‘them and us’ [situation], and people feeling we’ ve got the worst budget option that we can have for the town and people walking out thinking that we’ve got the right budget for the town. But what we won’t have is a council that is working together in taking this forward.”
However, despite the pleas of several councillors for more time, the vote went ahead.
Eight councillors voted in favour of the proposed 3% increase for the 2022/23 budget – cllr Phil Alford, cllr Jacqui Crundell, cllr Pat Aves, cllr Graham Ellis, cllr Gary Cooke, cllr Louisa Lewis, cllr Simon Crundell, and cllr Claire Forgacs.
Six councillors voted against: cllr Jon Hubbard, cllr Colin Goodhind, cllr Saffi Rabey, cllr Tom Price, cllr Jack Oatley, and cllr Carl Houghton.
Cllr Sue Mortimer, who drafted the ‘option four’ budget proposal, abstained from the vote, explaining that she sympathised with those councillors asking for more time to consider all proposals.