Row over 4p rise in weekly cost of fire service
A row broke out over a 4p-a-week rise in Avon Fire Authority’s portion of the council tax after a councillor claimed the service could cut backroom staff to save money.
North Somerset Conservative Cllr Nick Wilton was the only member of the authority to vote against the 2.99 per cent hike in the precept and suggested the roles of non-frontline personnel could be merged with their police counterparts at the services’ joint HQ in Portishead.
Fire authority chairman, independent Cllr Don Davies, blasted his claims as “farcical” and “very, very unfair” to employees in support services who he said would be appalled.
Avon Fire Authority members were given two options when they set their 2019/20 budget on February 13 — the 2.99 per cent increase, equal to an extra £2.13 a year for average band D properties from £71.35 to £73.48, or a two per cent rise taking bills up £1.42 to £72.77.
Temporary interim treasurer Kevin Woodward warned: “If members today decide they would rather go with a two per cent rise then we would have to find additional savings of £264,000.”
But Cllr Wilton said: “I don’t accept the premise that there is nothing that can be done.
“An awful lot of the 125 back office staff that we currently have could be shared with another organisation.
“We narrowly avoided building a brand new facility when the decision was taken to sell Temple Back.
“It was a no-brainer that we must coexist at police headquarters at Portishead because to spend £50million of taxpayers’ money would have been unconscionable, and fortunately that view prevailed.
“I think there are things we could do with technology to slim this organisation down, particularly when it comes to back office services, because I don’t accept the premise that we must spend more than we did last year.”
Cllr Davies retorted: “That’s very, very unfair on all the staff we have working in our support service at head office. They all work very hard.
“Conversations with the police go on all the time about collaboration.
“The idea the police can suddenly take over our back office function is a farcical thing to say and it is quite rude to our staff.
“Our staff will be fully justified in complaining about what you’ve said.”
Cllr Sarah Pomfret said: “Support staff are easier to attack but I don’t see how the police can take over the roles of those staff without them taking on extra people to cover it.
“You cannot just put extra work on police staff.”
Cllr Tony Davis said: “If you cut the backroom staff too much, the frontline staff actually cannot do their job because they need that backroom staff to support them.”
Chief Fire Officer Mick Crennell said: “We have a duty to collaborate with police and ambulance and any other partners where we can benefit.
“It’s our duty to get economies of scale to get a better return on our investment.
“We are already collaborating in a lot of areas, including sharing premises, and we will continue that conversation because it’s the right thing to do.”
The fire and rescue service moved to a shared HQ with Avon & Somerset Police in Portishead in 2017 after 44 years at Temple Back.
The 2.99 per cent increase still makes the fire service’s precept the 12th cheapest in the country.