COUNCIL tax bills could be set to rise by almost 2%under budget plans to be discussed next week.
Proposals which are to be debated by Cornwall Council's Cabinet on Wednesday suggest that council tax bills will have to increase by 1.97% in 2013-14.
The budget report also states that an even bigger increase will be needed in 2014-15 with a 5% rise being put forward. Such a big increase would require a referendum to be held.
As well as recommending the council tax rise the budget report also highlights a need to increase the amount of savings required in the coming year to be increased by an extra £6.4million. The council's medium term financial strategy already identified that £24m of savings would have to be reached in 2013-14.
Officers state that the extra savings will be needed to balance the budget with the suggested council tax rise and a reduced level of funding from central government.
The council is currently expected to be on target with a four-year programme of savings which could total £170m by 2015.
By setting the council tax increase at 1.97% the council would narrowly avoid holding a referendum – a vote would be required if they were to set the increase at 2% or more.
Cornwall Council leader Jim Currie said that the council had been forced to consider a rise in council tax.He said: "Although we have protected front line services from the impact of the disproportionately large cuts in our Government funding over the past two years by increasing efficiency and restructuring services, the combination of the continuing economic recession, further funding reductions and the costs of additional responsibilities means we are now being forced to consider increasing council tax levels for the first time in two years.
"The budget proposals already require all services to deliver further efficiencies to cover the costs of inflation and changes in legislation. We appreciate that many people are already struggling to pay their bills but the scale of the financial challenges we are facing means that increasing council tax is the only option if we want to continue to provide a full range of services for people in Cornwall.
"Some people have suggested that we should use our reserves to balance this year's budget. While this might seem like an easy option, the facts are that we will need this money to prevent cuts in future years. We are already planning to use some of our reserves in 2013/14 and 2014/15. Using this one off money to fund ongoing expenditure now will mean we are still faced with finding more than £13m of alternative funding or making significant reductions in services in 2015."
Liberal Democrat councillors criticised the budget. Group leader Jeremy Rowe said: "Cornwall's Conservatives have a record, but it is not one of keeping council tax low or protecting services. It is one of wastefulness and indecision.
"It was the Liberal Democrats who last year took the lead in proposing a council tax freeze whilst the Tories dithered and their Independent bedfellows backed a steep rise.
"It is the Liberal Democrats who have campaigned to save local services - forcing the Conservatives to back down on plans to cut bus routes and close libraries.
"As we approach the council elections in May, it is increasingly clear that Cornwall needs shot of this failed Tory administration and to see the Liberal Democrats take charge to guarantee the services that Cornwall relies on."
Finance officers at County Hall have also recommended that all schemes which require borrowing and have not been contractually agreed should be put on hold.
The recommendations going before Cabinet suggest that any variations on the budget of up to £1m should be funded from the council's reserves.
It also suggests that business rates receipts from renewable energy schemes which had been earmarked to be put back into renewable energy projects should not be ringfenced and instead go into the general budget.
The report to Cabinet warns that the new administration which will take control of the council after the elections in May will have to make a priority of drawing up a new savings strategy which will cover budget plans for the next few years.
Looking ahead the report states: "2014/15 will be a challenging year given the increased reduction in Government grant announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
"This report recommends that the new administration considers a council tax increase of 5% in order to protect services and sets target budgets on this basis. Such an increase will trigger the need to hold a public referendum.
"However, even after cash freezing service budgets and this proposed level of council tax there will still be a need to find further savings and efficiencies."
The budget proposals will be discussed by the Cabinet next Wednesday. It will make a recommendation to full council.