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To tax or to axe?

Councillors in Dumfries and Galloway are staring into the same bleak future as their Argyll counterparts, at least for the 1997-98 financial year.

Departments are being asked to prepare for cuts of 8 per cent to bring spending into line with the Government's capping regime. This would remove more than Pounds 5 million from the Pounds 68.5 million education budget and would mean "curtains" for a number of vital services, according to Ken Macleod, the director of education.

A special meeting of the education committee decided on Monday, however, to postpone any decision pending the outcome of behind the scenes political manoeuvring on the balance to be struck between levels of service spending and council tax levels.

There is believed to be pressure from some councillors, conscious that the education budget has already suffered from additional cuts of Pounds 2. 1 million in the course of the current year, to protect at least front-line services. This would mean ruling out compulsory redundancies but accepting the appreciable impact this would then have on the rest of the service.

The education committee boxed itself in this week by appearing to rule out some Pounds 2.5 million worth of savings suggested by the director, just half of the 8 per cent target. This was partly because it would have led to the end of outdoor education, instrumental instruction, special support for educational deprivation, adult education, school lets, and specialist arts teaching in primary schools. But some of the cuts would have involved severance costs for staff which would have undermined the savings.

Councillors are now wrestling with the unpalatable prospect of pushing up council tax rates to rescue key services. The Liberal Democrat group, part of the ruling coalition with the Independents, is understood to be contemplating a 25 per cent rise, sufficient to create balances which would then be used to fund salary increases.

That would effectively save the education department pay bill some Pounds 1.5 million.

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