Council tax views roll in

SCORES of Evening Star readers have contacted us to let us know what they think should happen to council tax bills last year.Many of the coupons have been filled in by people with individual views about council expenditure – but several common threads have emerged.

SCORES of Evening Star readers have contacted us to let us know what they think should happen to council tax bills last year.

Many of the coupons have been filled in by people with individual views about council expenditure – but several common threads have emerged.

One issue that has struck a nerve with many readers is the subject of opening the county's libraries on Sundays.

This started during the summer in an attempt to persuade more people to visit the libraries – and there was further controversy when it was revealed that the county council had turned to an outside agency to promote the opening – at a cost of £20,000.

Many people who sent in our coupons – and a large proportion have come from pensioners who are really struggling to find the 18 per cent increase this year – said Sunday opening was an unnecessary expense.

Extending library hours – including opening the doors on Sunday – is expected to add about £380,000 to the library service's £10 million budget this year.

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About half of this – £190,000 – can be directly attributed to opening on Sundays, but the council does expect to raise £50,000 from additional fees it charges.

A spokesman for the county council said the Audit Commission recommended that libraries should open on Sundays, and until earlier this year Suffolk's library service was not open as often as that in other counties – although it was one of the most efficient in Britain.

The £190,000 cost of opening on Sundays was a tiny proportion of the total council budget of £581 million.

Another target of many people was the amount of roadworks, especially new traffic lights and pedestrian crossings which have been introduced.

For other people, however, maintaining and improving roads was seen as a priority for spending.

A new set of traffic lights at a simple junction costs between £60,000 and £100,000 to install while a complicated junction like that in London Road in Ipswich can cost up to £250,000.

A new pelican or toucan crossing can cost £35,000.

"Most of the time these are introduced because of pressure from local residents," said the council spokesman.

Councillors' allowances were another target for many writers – the total amount spent on these last year was £506,955.

That's a tidy sum – but it represents less than a thousandth of the total council budget.

Many people wanted more county council money to be spent on policing. The county council has nothing to do with the police now – that's the responsibility of the police authority which levies its own council tax.

However while many people wanted more money spent on law and order, others felt the police helicopter was an unnecessary extravagance.

Several suggested selling it to save council tax bills.

A police spokeswoman said the helicopter had been bought with funds provided by the Home Office.

The cost of running it was included in the overall police operations budget and could not be accurately assessed.

However its use saved many man hours in expensive operations such as searches – last year it saved an estimated £500,000 in officer man hours.

"The support shown by Evening Star readers for their police service is very encouraging," a police spokeswoman said.

"Suffolk Constabulary are now entering the final phase of their recruitment campaign aimed at increasing Suffolk's complement of officers by nearly 200."

Another project many people would like to see scrapped is the proposed paving of Upper Brook Street, Dogs Head Street and Museum Street in Ipswich.

That will be completed by Ipswich Council early next year – but transportation manager Stephen Auld said it would not cost council tax payers a penny.

"It's being paid for completely by the developers who built the Anglia Retail Park on our land off Bury Road, which includes the Park and Ride.

"Part of the deal when that retail park was built was for the developers to improve the town centre and that is where the money will come for that," Mr Auld said.

Meanwhile council tax rises for pensioners would be pegged to inflation if a revolutionary scheme being considered by two county councils receives Government backing.

Conservatives in Suffolk are asking the ruling Labour-Liberal Democrat administration at county hall to give its support to proposals being put forward by Tory controlled Kent and Hampshire county councils.

In Kent, council leader Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart favours limiting rises to 2.5% for pensioner households, with the shortfall being made up by a surcharge on other council tax payers on top of any other rise imposed by the county.

Suffolk Tory leader Jeremy Pembroke is asking the county hall administration in Ipswich to back the changes. "Pensioners cannot afford another major rise and we must do all we can to held them financially."

Council leader Bryony Rudkin promised not to dismiss the proposals out of hand. "We will give them careful consideration. However, there is a question of legality which must be sorted out by the Government before councils can start introducing different bands of taxation."

n The Prime Minister has rejected claims that the Government was responsible for council tax rises. Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said the tax had risen by 70% since 1997, meaning a typical family was now paying £413 more since Labour came to office.

Tony Blair conceded at Commons question time that the tax had increased since Labour was elected in 1997 but insisted it was up to local authorities to set the rate. Financial support from central Government to councils had also increased by 25%, he added.