Fire brigade debt soars to £36m despite local tax rise
Budget plans from a Westcountry fire service could send its debt spiralling to £36 million in five years – more than a third of the value of its entire property estate.
Councillors at Devon and Somerset Fire Authority have approved a 1.99% council tax rise to plug a funding gap left by the third worst grant cut in the country by the Government.
Its share of bills in the two counties will rise by £1.47 a year – less than 3 pence per week – following a 3% rise in its precept last year.
By keeping its precept increase below 2%, members avoided triggering an automatic referendum, demanded by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, which would have cost around £2.3 million.
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But its plan, which centres around scaling back the largest fleet of fire engines outside London by ushering in a new "light response pump", will see the authority shatter its debt ceiling of 5% by 2019.
Treasurer Kevin Woodward said the projected debt would need to be paid off by an increase in revenue from commercial activities.
However, he described the predicted overspend – debt currently stands at £4.6 million – as equivalent to a 36% mortgage on the service's £100 million property estate.
"It is sizeable amount of money which will need to be mitigated as much as possible by any surpluses in the commercial area," he told a meeting of the authority yesterday.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service announced plans last month to shed 150 jobs voluntarily in response to a grant cut by £5.5 million, or 17%, over two years.
Its corporate plan also seeks to scale down three of Plymouth's seven crews to "on-call", doing the same with one crew in Taunton, one in Torquay and another in Ilfracombe.
Chief Fire Officer Lee Howell said rural operations found it harder to make savings than their urban counterparts, who have more whole-time staff and scope for cuts or changes.
He told the authority meeting, at fire service headquarters in Clyst St George, outside Exeter, that a disposal list of estate property, including 85 mostly rural fire stations, would be drawn up.
But he warned that he was "limited" as to how much he could do without "compromising operational performance".
Former East Devon District Council chief Sara Randall Johnson, a member of the fire authority, led moves to freeze council tax and collect the Government's £459,000 reward grant. But the motion was defeated, by 15 votes to eight, with one abstention.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) backed the rise in bills but said the corporate plan under consultation would leave the public waiting longer for a fire engine.
Speaking after the meeting, FBU chairman in the two counties Bob Walker said he "dreaded to think" what would have to be cut without the 2% rise.
"But taking away fire engines from the front line is not the way forward for the general public," he added.