Andover Town Council has voted to maintain its tax precept at the current level following a lengthy meeting of the full council.

Councillors voted to maintain the level at £21.10 per Band D household for another year, generating just under £350,000 in revenue. This fell short of the proposed expenditure of at least £466,208 the council had planned in its budget, with the internal auditor have suggested the council consider an increase.

However, following debates over a proposed new budget, the costs were reduced to just under £365,000, with the remaining shortfall to be met from the council’s reserves.

Councillors met at the full council precept meeting on Tuesday, January 26, to set the level of precept for the rest of the year, which had to be decided on before the end of the month.

Soon after debate of the precept began, a resolution was proposed by Councillor Luigi Gregori to maintain it at the same rate as the previous year, which was seconded by Cllr Christopher Ecclestone.

There was general agreement on this resolution, with Cllr Lauren Banville saying that she would not be voting for an increase, “especially given the current climate, Covid, and the fact that people have lost their jobs.”

“Until we’ve been able to prove that there’s value for money within the council,” she said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Cllr Barbara Long concurred, saying: “In the climate that we have today with people not being able to work, not earning money, I really don’t think we should be increasing the precept, and I know that’s going to be hard to set a balanced budget but I think we have to try to cut to the cloth.

“I don’t think it’s right to burden the people of Andover with a higher precept.”

However, Cllr David Coole noted that a budget had to be set before the precept could be considered. An amendment he proposed to defer the precept discussion until after the budget was discussed was rejected by councillors. However, the discussion of the precepts was subsequently moved after locum clerk Tracy Predeth noted that it was “not legal” otherwise.

As a result, discussion turned to the budget itself, with Cllr Robin Hughes proposing numerous changes to the budget included in the agenda. This included reducing grant money in the earmarked reserves by £3,000, as well as removing members allowances, which are yet to be approved.

The largest change saw £50,000 taken from the new buildings fund to be put aside for the purchase of new allotments, with the £50,000 already in the reserves for this put back into the allotments budget to cover other costs.

Cllr Hughes said that his budget proposal “recognised the unique circumstances of this year with the Covid pandemic and the financial and employment uncertainty that our residents may now find themselves in.”

He added that a rise in the precept could not be justified “given the behaviour of members of this council” and that the budget took into account the possibility of legal action resulting for a potential judicial review against the council made by some of its members.

Cllr Ecclestone raised concerns that there was a £15,000 reduction in staff costs, “but a two per cent mandated rise in salaries.”

“There’s no way that one can pay the mandated pay rise and reduce the budget,” he said.

Mayor Richard Rowles said that the apparent anomaly was a result of the use of contractors this year, which would otherwise have led to a £42,000 underspend.

Cllr Coole suggested that calculations he had performed could cut payroll costs by £77,000, and called for other changes to the budget, such as an increase in the cost of allotment rentals and abandoning a physical office.

He said: “We haven’t addressed that we are considering getting rid of the office and perhaps we should consider making a bold statement by saying we’re going to go virtual, and if we need to meet once or twice a week we can hire a space, maybe in Beech Hurst or somewhere else.

“I think we need to be a bit more creative, and we can make significant savings if we take that approach.”

He also raised concerns over the budget having not taken into account the requests of some committees, saying that Cllr Hughes had been “vindictive.” In particular, he noted the use of money from the new buildings fund which would be put towards new allotment; concerns which his Andover Independents Party colleague Cllr Ecclestone shared.

Cllr Ecclestone said: “You’re now prepared to take money from the 52,000 residents of Andover and give them to 10 or 12 residents who will get plots in your new allotment sites.

“How many allotment sites are you going to give us for 50,000?”

Cllr Hughes responded that “the same question could be asked of how many buildings we’re going to buy with £102,000.”

The budget was subsequently put to a vote, and passed with six votes in favour, with Cllr Coole voting against and Cllr Ecclestone abstaining. Cllrs Meyer and Treadwell were not present for the vote.

Cllr Meyer subsequently returned to the meeting in time for a vote on the precept, and Cllr Ecclestone departed. After a procedural motion to move straight to a vote without debate was passed, the precept was voted on.

It passed with six votes in favour, with Cllrs Coole and Meyer voting against. The council subsequently entered closed session to discuss a number of reports regarding confidential matters.