Taxpayers were today facing a stark choice between a rise in their bills or losing vital services.
Under a package of severe cuts drawn up by Walsall Council, a town centre museum will close, jobs will be lost and millions of pounds will be cut from its already struggling children’s services department’s budget.
Bosses are now consulting with the public over the prospect of saving services in exchange for a rise in their council tax bills.
Announcing the latest round of cuts at a meeting last night, council leader Mike Bird said that ‘tough decisions’ would have to be made.
He said: “We’ve said before we’re working hard to make Walsall a better place for everyone. It is clear there will be less money, fewer people and so we’ll be able to do less.
“We’ll make the best of what we’ve got. There will be tough decisions ahead.
“Over the past four years there have been 450 redundancies.
“We expect more job losses but it would be wrong to ask us to speculate on a figure. What we have are proposals and we won’t know a final figure until they have been worked through and approved.”
Under the £19m package of cuts, Walsall Museum in Lichfield Street will shut, saving £70,000, and £5m will be shaved from the children’s services budget – although chiefs claim all 18 children’s centres across the borough will remain open.
Grants to allotment associations could be cut by 50 per cent, saving £20,150, and £480,000 is set to be saved by re-negotiating a contract for providing respite care.
There will also be a reduction in the amount spent on playground, cemetery and sports pitch maintenance.
A £165,000 cut to the bereavement service will be plugged by a rise in fees and charges.
Bosses at the council say the cuts could be reduced if local people agree to an increase in its rates.
A two per cent increase – an extra 60p a week for people living in a Band D property – would generate an extra income of £1.7m and would enable some services to be protected. A four per cent increase – an additional £1.20 a week – would raise £3.4m but would trigger a public referendum costing around £250,000.
Councillor Bird added: “This is the biggest consultation we’ve undertaken and it’s extremely important for people to have their say.
“On what services should we spend £620m of public money? We’ve pledged to minimise the effect on frontline services such as keeping weekly bin collections the same, keeping libraries, our 18 children centres open and maintaining our street cleansing services.
“Some of the savings are from making council services work more efficiently – making our money go further. But some will mean reductions in services for residents.
“We have tried to minimise the effects of these savings on children and other vulnerable people and on the quality of the local environment. But this will become much harder in the future.”
Councillor Christopher Towe, portfolio holder for finance, said: “We’ve got four clear priorities and we intend to keep them uppermost in our minds.
“Firstly, we want to help business create jobs and opportunities. We want to help Walsall people lead healthier lives and older people live independently.
“We want to create safe and sustainable places where everyone can live. We also want to help children of all backgrounds get the best start in life they possibly can,” he added.
People in Walsall today reacted angrily to the news, with some saying that the council should be spending millions on the borough, not cutting its spending.
Rob Maritza, aged 26, from Upper Forster Street, Walsall, said: “Walsall needs more jobs. If you look around there’s not many. If they are talking about cutting jobs there are not going to be many left.
“Walsall has a high rate of unemployment. It’s a bit ridiculous. I agree and disagree about closing the museum. Not many people visit it. They could move the stuff to the art gallery. A lot more people visit there. I don’t think many people know the museum is even there.
“I know a lot of people have allotments so I don’t think they should cut grants. They should open more shops and make more jobs for people.”
Kevin Whitehouse, 54, from Marlborough Street, Bloxwich, said: “The shops are closed and the market is going to rack and ruin. They should be investing in Walsall not cutting from it.
“I don’t use the museum but young people do. It’s there so they can learn about the history of Walsall.”
Patrick Morgan, 76, from Birmingham Road, Walsall, said any decision made by the council would be an unpopular one. He said: “It makes me wonder where they will get this money from.
The Government are forcing them to do it really. Whatever they do it will be unpopular.
“It will affect people in different ways. I wouldn’t like them to close the museum but I’m probably in the minority.
“I think the majority of people don’t visit the museum.”
He added the council should be doing something about the condition of roads and spending money on maintaining them.
Dave Beckett, 67, also from Birmingham Road, said: “I think they should be putting £19m in not taking £19m out. I think it’s disgraceful.
“They are putting nothing into the market and it’s the market that brings people into Walsall.
“I would not take the museum away from the people but I think it’s underused. I don’t think the council considers Walsall people.”
Mrs June Proffitt, 77, of Gosgote Place, Walsall, said: “I don’t want to pay more council tax.
“I pay enough already but I suppose we will have to pay more if we are going to keep services. It’s terrible really. It will be a shame if the museum closes.”
The council plans to spend £620m next year, including £64m on social care, £27m on regeneration and transport, £14m on leisure and culture, with £61m on children’s services.
Weekly bin collections will continue, libraries and children centres will not be closed and the authority has vowed it will continue to keep the streets clean.
The council has already managed to shave £32m from its spending in the last two years.
In August union bosses pledged to hold regular talks with officials from Walsall Council to reduce the need for compulsory redundancies as chiefs look to make swingeing cuts. The £100m savings needed over the next five years are £20m more than expected. Union officials said they wanted to help draw up plans, which would minimise the risk of large numbers of compulsory redundancies at the town hall.
Tony Jones, from Unison, said: “We will be in regular consultation with the council to mitigate any losses.
“If there are to be redundancies we will be looking for voluntary redundancies first and looking to redeploy in other areas.”
It comes after changes to the Government grant given to the local authority.
The proposals go before the council’s cabinet meeting on Wednesday, October 23.
A final decision is due to be made in February.