AS the local council elections draw near there are big questions that need to be asked
Surrey Heath Council has increased the council tax by nearly 16%, way ahead of inflation and well beyond what might be regarded as reasonable for an authority that has seen many of its responsibilities transferred away. They're not in charge of the roads, they do not provide education, social services, libraries or the fire brigade.
As well as the hike in local taxes they have spiralled up the cost of services, way ahead of inflation and in a way that makes no sense.
For instance: Dial-a-Ride for the elderly and disabled is up by 10%; meals on wheels for the house-bound, up by nearly 10%; Shop-Mobility, for the disabled, 10%; action days for the kids during the school holidays, by 100%, yes 100%; football and rugby pitches by 42% and changing room hire by 33%. Put together, these increases only yield an extra £18,000 for the council, but are a savage escalation for families, the elderly and the vulnerable
Car parking charges have been increased and a new payment system introduced at Main Square, with only two pay stations replacing six. The predictable result; queues blocking entrances, exits and shop doorways.
Nevertheless the council maintains a lavish staff car leasing scheme that puts some staff behind the wheel of Mercedes and BMW cars. Indeed, you would be hard put to find any of the council's spending that has been cut, trimmed or even nibbled at. However, there is something that the council is good at and that is sitting on a huge pile of our money. Surrey Heath will be spending about £12m this year and has something in the region of £16m in reserve, on deposit and stashed away. They are making only minor transfers from their booty to help cut the cost of our taxes. They could be helping us a lot more.
A measure of cash put to one side for a rainy day is obviously sensible. Anyway, the council is not allowed to spend all of its reserves.
But, as most of the council's risks are insured or could be covered by emergency draw-down arrangements from central government, it is hard not to be suspicious.
Is there a disaster on the way that they're not telling us about? Is the council's long overdue deal to develop a new shopping centre in Park Street going sour, again? A major decision meeting has already been put back. Why else would they sit on our money? (See story on page three).
I would suggest this Tory council call to mind Disraeli's famous advice: "A tax deferred is a benefit conferred."
I have spoken, privately, with councillors and one or two officers, few of whom have any real understanding of local government finance. Indeed, under the new administrative arrangements, adopted by the council, most decisions are now taken by a small cabal of members called the "executive" and the rest of the council seems to be in the dark. However you look at it, Surrey Heath has lost its way, its contact with the community and its touch.
When the candidates come to call for your vote, be sure to ask them to explain how the council's finances are arrived at and, in detail, what they have done to either oppose the increases or support them and how they will promise to cut your local tax bill. If they can't, or won't, or don't know, don't vote for them. You might also like to ask them if they agree with the nearly £10,000 that is being spent to give all councillors free access to the Internet.
Roy Lilley, Yockley Close, Camberley.
** Is there a council locally that doesn't pour our cash down the drain? Even the ones that claim prudence toss away millions on everything from "entertainments" and town twinning to bloated staff payrolls and flashy offices. Alan Franklin, Editor.