Debt-ridden Hammersmith and Fulham Council spent more than £7,000 of public money on a party for its retiring chief executive in what has been described as an 'astonishing' use of tax payers' cash.
More than 450 council staff attended the Town Hall event in honour of Geoff Alltimes, who last month left his job as one of the highest paid local authority executives in the country with a pay-off of more than £200,000 and an annual pension thought to be in excess of £100,000.
Conservative councillors and colleagues of Mr Alltimes insisted the public would 'understand' why the authority, which has overseen cuts to community services and buildings worth millions of pounds in what it describes as its 'relentless drive for savings', pushed the boat out to mark his 36-year council career.
But leader of the Labour opposition Stephen Cowan said: "It's hard to understand why over £7,000 of tax payers' money was wasted on a boozy knees-up while the council is simultaneously cutting many local Sure Start nurseries' annual budgets to just £19,000. Most residents will think that is the wrong priority to spend their hard-earned money on. These are difficult times."
Tory councillor Harry Phibbs said the bash, which was held on October 31, could be justified because it boosted council staff's 'morale'.
He said: "If you'd have had a much smaller leaving party you could have saved money but you wouldn't have been able to have a lot of people there. A lot of people appreciated being involved and it was good in terms of morale."
Asked whether residents would accept the amount spent, he said: "I think most would understand it's the right thing to do. He wanted to thank the staff he had worked alongside for 35 years and I think the figure is in proportion to how many people were there."
Councillor Peter Graham, who works closely with Fulham and Chelsea MP Greg Hands, added he 'didn't have a problem (with the party)' because the council is now saving money through sharing a chief executive with Kensington and Chelsea Council.
Council leader Stephen Greenhalgh has often spoken of the authority's drive to cut costs because of its £133m debts. After a host of buildings were sold earlier this year, including Palingswick House and the Sands End Community Centre, he said: "I understand how difficult some people have found it to come to terms with the budget pressures we are facing, but the reality is, we have no choice but to reduce our spending."
Mr Cowan said the expense of the party made a mockery of the council's savings pledges. "If you are spending your hard-earned money on council tax, you exoect better," he added.
The council says Mr Alltimes paid for all alcohol out of his own pocket and that the public money was spent on an outside catering firm. 'Decorations' and soft drinks came from private donations, it said, while the food enjoyed by guests was 'basic'. The final cost of £7,184 included VAT, it added.
Mr Greenhalgh accused the Labour group of hypocrisy, as when in power they also held lavish retirement parties for senior officers.
He said: "I am never going to stop spending some money on celebrating the contributions of our staff who work hard for our authority for many years, whether senior or junior.
"Because we're in an era of austerity, they are asked to make some contribution. This wasn't a practice that started with the Conservatives, and when Labour were in charge they paid for the food and the wine."
A spokesman added that the 'civic event' was organised to mark the departure of an 'outstanding public servant who dedicated 35 years of his life to serving the residents of Hammersmith and Fulham'.
He added: "This council is leading the way in slashing millions of pounds worth of waste and bureaucracy. We are the only council to be consistently improving services while cutting our historic debt burden and cutting council tax."
Mr Cowan added four members of his Labour party attended in the belief the bash was being funded entirely by Mr Alltimes. "They popped their head around the door to say goodbye before attending a question and answer evening with Ken Livingstone," he said.
Meanwhile, the row over the value of Mr Alltimes' pension rumbled on last week when MP Greg Hands accused rival MP Andy Slaughter of hyposcrisy over his attacks on the controversial subject.
Documents seen by the Chronicle reveal Mr Slaughter was also generous with the public purse in his days with the council. When he was executive mayor of the then Labour-ruled authority in 1999, Mr Slaughter oversaw the appointment of Richard Harbord as CEO on a starting salary of about £110,000, the equivalent of £150,000 in todays' money. Records show that within a year Mr Harbord was given a rise to £140,000, and it is believed he was given a further hike when appointed to a second role of finance director in June 2001.
During his recent broadside, which coincided with Mr Alltimes' retirement, Mr Slaughter was also critical of his pension arrangements, which are thought to have included a 'goodbye' payment of £270,000 in addition to annual injections of £104,000 and his final basic salary of £226,000.
But when predecessor Mr Harbord's exit was brought forward a year to May 2002 due to his 'lack of progress' in the role, notes from an executive meeting indicate he was given a leaving sum of £110,000, as well as a windfall of £62,400 to his pension fund.
Fulham and Chelsea MP Greg Hands accused Mr Slaughter of double standards, saying: "Just months after Mr Harbord was given a payrise he was asked to leave and got a huge pay-off in the process.
"Whether or not either of the CEOs' earnings are right or wrong, this represents clear hypocrisy on the part of Andy Slaughter. Mr Alltimes left the council in a proper process having served it for 35 years. Mr Harbord was hired with great fanfare and then sent packing after just three-and-a-half years."
Mr Slaughter dismissed the accusations as 'typical Tory diversion tactics'. He said Mr Alltimes' final year salary of £226,000 was not comparable to Mr Harbord's and said his party is actively lobbying to change rules that allow pensions to be calculated on executives' last salaries instead of their average pay packets.
He added: "The current rules mean CEOs get big salary rises in their last year to get better pensions, which is why Mr Alltimes' rose by a £11,000 in his last year to one of the best packages in the country and that is not right," he said.
"This council is axing scores of workers while paying huge money for people like Geoff Alltimes to do its dirty work. If I remember correctly, when we appointed Mr Alltimes he was on £140,000."