People power has edged Highland Council closer to scrapping the Scottish Government-imposed council tax freeze.
The public have backed the move as part of a wide-ranging consultation on how the local authority can cut costs and make ends meet.
A survey of 2,300 residents has revealed 61% of people in the north are prepared to endure a 5% rise in council tax to protect services.
But council leaders were warned last night that becoming Scotland’s “rebels” was a risky tactic which could be a vote loser and attract a hefty penalty from SNP ministers at Holyrood.
The tax issue was a significant feature of responses to a broad-ranging, 10-page questionnaire issued to a “people’s panel”.
It was aimed at garnering opinions on options from a reduction in the council’s working week and primary school hours to secondary school staffing levels and the funding of community groups.
Budget team member Matthew Reiss said the council considered 61% “a strong signal of public opinion”.
He said breaking ranks on the eight-year-old council tax “accord” with the Scottish Government would be “a very big decision” which would require a democratic vote.
He added that the local authority would try to establish – in advance – the extent of any sanction in the event that it voted to scrap the freeze.
There is no written contract binding the agreement.
The scale of any potential penalty is unknown, but council officials in Highland have advised members that it is likely to be about £3million.
Local authority leader Margaret Davidson has indicated to the Press and Journal that her Independent minority-led administration may enter uncharted territory by ditching the accord because of the sheer volume of constituents’ growing concern about the future of local services.
And Highland may not be alone.
A spokesman for the local authorities umbrella body Cosla said: “We got a crystal clear steer from council leaders in December that the package of measures for local government within the (Scottish) budget, including the council tax freeze, is totally unacceptable.”
A 5% tax increase would add just under £5 per month to Band D property bills. The council says that would raise £5million.
Another budget team member, Alister Mackinnon, said: “I would hope we could all put politics aside. It’s our duty to ensure that we deliver the services in a transparent and cost-effective manner.”
But SNP opposition group leader Maxine Smith warned that extra tax would not automatically be of benefit.
“A struggling family might get more potholes filled in but they might not think their family is better off. They might prefer to be putting bread on the table,” she said.
Liberal Democrat group leader Alasdair Christie considered a 5% rise “worthy of investigation” while Labour group leader Jimmy Gray said he believed most people would see it as “an acceptable level” of increase.
The Scottish Government would not reveal the scale of any sanction yesterday.
A spokeswoman merely said: “We have announced a council tax freeze for a ninth consecutive year – a saving of around £1,550 for the average Band D household.
“We are now in discussion with councils over the terms and implementation of the local government finance settlement before the final budget vote in parliament next month.”