Council tax in the Western Isles will increase by 4.79 per-cent from April after councillors backed the move at their budget setting meetings last Wednesday.
The decision means that council tax payers will see increases of between 60p and £1 per week in their bills depending on the council tax band of their property.
But, the increase was opposed by the SNP group of councillors, who put forward an amendment to the budget motion for a council tax increase of less than 2 per-cent for the year, along with measures to reintroduce concessionary fares on inter-island ferries and changes to planning rules to encourage development.
The SNP amendment would have seen the resulting short-falls in the Comhairle’s income, and the new-spend on concessionary ferry fares, being funded from council balances – the reserves held by the authority – to the extent of £180k.
The increase in council tax is to the new cap limit, set buy the Scottish Government, which was raised from three per-cent per year to nearly five per-cent as part of the Scottish Government’s budget settlement.
In opening the debate on the council tax increase, Comhairle leader, Councillor Roddie MacKay, described this year’s budget-setting process as “more challenging than any that the Comhairle has faced in its history.”
Cllr MacKay said: “We cannot hide from the fact that since 2010 the Comhairle has had huge funding reductions and that for 2019/20 we have £1.7m less cash to spend on our core services.
“Whilst we welcome new monies for Health and Social Care and the expansion of Early Years Education I cannot accept that this is a fair deal for Local Government.
“The Comhairle delivers vital services for our communities that they depend on daily, such as educating our children; looking after the vulnerable; keeping our roads safe; and recycling waste.
“There can be no doubt that with the best will in the world less funding will mean less services and we will certainly start to see the impact of this during the coming year.
“However, we will continue to do our best to work with the Scottish Government and our communities to minimise the effect on services and offset the impact on our economy.”
“Our service redesign programme, that we started last year means that we are already on the road to realising the necessary savings but difficult decisions around Economic Development, Bus Services and Waste in the coming months are only the first we will have to address.
“Our transformation programme seeks to tackle the reduction in core funding by empowering our communities, and growing alternative income, both revenue and capital. I was very much encouraged by the engagement in our community conversations last year and am looking forward to seeing what can be achieved in the second round which will start later this month.”
In proposing the SNP amendment, Barraigh, Bhatarsaigh, Eiriosgaigh agus Uibhist a Deas Councillor, Donald Manford, said: “It is not difficult to acknowledge that the times are challenging. They are challenging for the Comhairle, but the challenges are heavy for constituents.
“The council’s money is the people’s money, and it is important to remind ourselves from time to time that Balances is a word used for the people’s money that we haven’t spent, and the Comhairle has amongst the highest balances in Scotland.
“We also have the lowest wages and in some parts of our islands the wages are well below the average wage, and that is a good reason for us to have the lowest council tax, one that the people can afford.”
During the ensuing debate, Point councillor, Norrie MacDonald cautioned that the proposed amendment was “dangerous in that if we go to the government in future years looking for extra funds they will say, we gave you the opportunity to raise your income and you didn’t use it. This amendment doesn’t realise the position we are in.”
SNP Group leader, Cllr Gordon Murray, said: “I support the amendment. Many people will feel that it is not a fair increase when Comhairle chief officers have seen increases in their salaries, and then we raise taxes to the maximum allowed.”
In closing the debate, Comhairle Leader, Cllr Roddie Mackay, stated that the Comhairle balances were being held to deal with any unexpected costs, and highlighted the threat posed to the Comhairie’s finances by “the uncertainty over Brexit in the coming year.”
Cllr MacKay also disputed the claim made over Chief Officers’ salary increases, stating that the restructuring of departments and senior posts ‘had saved the Comhairle more than £100k’.
After the debate between members, the main motion, proposed by the Comhairle Leader, and the amendment proposed by Cllr Manford were put to a vote, and the main motion was carried by 21 votes to 6.