Published: 19:43, 25 February 2021
| Updated: 19:49, 25 February 2021
Maidstone council will raise its Council Tax bills by 2% from April, the maximum permitted by Government legislation without having to seek a referendum.
But the decision taken by the full council last night was a close-run thing.
The vote was 23 in favour of the budget proposals put forward by the policy and resources committee, and 22 against, with four abstentions.
Tory party group leader Cllr John Perry first tried to make an amendment to the proposals. He wanted to allocate more money to the Local Plan Review process to ensure it was adequately funded, taking the money from that which the council was setting aside for capital expenditures reserves. The change would have made no difference to the overall spending figures but was defeated by 21 votes in favour to 26 against.
Cllr Perry said the change would protect the borough from "a frantic search for further savings" when it became clear later that the Local Plan needed more money.
But Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem), the leader of the council, said he had been assured by his officers that if it became necessary the council "would find the funds from somewhere."
Cllr Cox's words were thrown back at him, when members came to decide the main budget motion.
Cllr Patrik Garten (Con) said: "If money can be found 'from somewhere' that means we have money stashed away under the mattress.
"If that is the case, why are we increasing the council tax to the maximum, especially in times when people are really struggling?"
Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) was concerned that an £860,000 grant that the council was getting from the Government had not been included anywhere in the budget figures. He was told the reason was that the money was specifically to be used to help kick-start the town's economy after Covid and could be not be used as part of the general expenditure.
Cllr John Perry said the budget "was so vague in parts, it requires an act of faith and I cannot support it on this basis."
But Cllr Fay Gooch (Ind) said the budget had been "put together with careful consideration and maximun flexibility." She noted that it would enable the council to increase its reserves from £2m to £4m.
Cllr Cox explained that when he said money would be found from somewhere if needed, he meant it would come from reserves.
Cllr Jonathan Purle (Con) noted it was not just the size of the increase, but the overall level of taxation in Maidstone that was worrying.
He said both Tonbridge and Malling and Ashford were cheaper, claiming: "It's 60% more expensive to live in Maidstone than in Ashford."
The council's director of finance, Mark Green, said the 2% increase was the equivalent of an extra £5.31 per Band D household per year.
He also warned councillors that by law the budget had to be set by March 1, so if they voted down the proposals that night, another meeting would have to be held in the next couple of days.
When it came to the vote, councillors divided largely on party lines.
All the Liberal Democrat members present voted for the maximum 2% increase. They were supported by Cllr Keith Adkinson (Lab) and Cllr Steve Munford (Ind).
All but one of the Conservatives voted against the proposal and they were supported by Cllr Eddie Powell (Ind Maidstone) and Independent Cllrs Tom and Janetta Sams.
The Conservative exception was Cllr Mike Cumming who abstained.
As the motion was only won by one vote, the voting would have been even if Cllr Cuming had voted with his colleagues.
If that had happened, the Mayor, Conservative Cllr Marion Ring, would have had the casting vote, and she had used her first vote against the proposals.
Labour councillors Paul Harper, Malcolm McKay and Margaret Rose also abstained.
So Maidstone's element of the council tax in the next financial year will be £270.90 for the "average" Band D house.
That may not sound much, but the borough council also collects with the council tax the precepts for a number of other bodies which make the total mount up.
The figures for a Band D house are another £1,259 for KCC, £159 for the special adult social care supplement, £218 for the police and £80 for the fire authority, which brings the total to £1,988 for a Band D property.
Households pay on a sliding band system that supposedly represents the value of their homes.
So those in the least valuable Band A group will pay £1,325, but those at the top end of the scale in Band H will pay £3,977.
On top of that, residents who live in a parished area with their own parish council will pay an additional parish precept, which might be anywhere up to £123 for a Band D house for those living in Headcorn, the highest rated village.