Kingston is “sleepwalking into bankruptcy” like Northamptonshire County Council did, the authority’s new leader has warned.
The Liberal Democrat administration claimed to have inherited a perilous financial position from the Conservatives while presenting their “emergency budget” to a full council meeting on July 17.
Council leader Liz Green said: “I was extremely worried before the election, but frankly I was shocked to find out how dire the finances were when we took over control in May.
“The Tories knew this, and the budget they set earlier this year was wholly irresponsible.
“One now-ex Conservative councillor quietly spoke to me during the election period. They simply said ‘you are right to be looking into Kingston and comparing it to Northamptonshire’s problems’.
“And boy, was that an understatement.”
Cllr Green pointed to the £11.6 million of savings - a little more than half of the total identified - listed as “red” or “amber”, meaning they are considered either unachievable or only partly achievable.
The Lib Dems accused the Conservatives of not taking a corporate peer review from the Local Government Association (LGA) during their four-year administration, and said their decision not to increase council tax was a mistake.
Portfolio holder for finance Cllr Alison Holt said: “Not increasing council tax - not even taking the adult social care precept, which most councils did, and is only available for a period - was quite honestly financially irresponsible.
“Nearly 50 per cent of the budget is spent on adult social care, and while savings have been achieved, the trend is still upwards.
“Instead of increasing council tax, savings of £22 million were identified - a level of saving never achieved before by the council, and after years of reorganisation and cost-cutting.
“This is not sustainable, and it’s having a detrimental impact on the balance sheet of the council.”
Conservative councillors said there were “no parallels” with Northamptonshire, and said the emergency budget promised in the Lib Dem manifesto turned out to be “an anti-climax”.
Leader of the opposition and former leader of the council Cllr Kevin Davis accused the Lib Dems of spinning the situation to blame the previous administration, and said talk of bankruptcy has to be “nipped in the bud”.
He said: “I must admit I have become increasingly concerned by the inflammatory language I’ve heard about the council going bankrupt.
“There are always red and green risks at the beginning of the budget year, because some will be implemented faster than others. But as we proved last year, that comes right and in fact we came significantly under budget last year.
“It’s insane of the Lib Dems to run down our borough and run down our officers in the way they do.”
Cllr Davis tabled an amendment that would have had the council engage external auditors, and “put his reputation at risk” of them finding he mismanaged the council’s finances.
This emergency budget, he said, was neither an emergency nor really a budget.
He said: “I have no problems with the leader of the council setting out a policy direction, but let’s not dress it up as something that it isn’t.
“Let’s just get this over and done with now, because if it’s an emergency and we are going bankrupt then let’s sort it out now.”
The amendment was voted down, with Cllr Green pointing to the fact that external auditors are already preparing their annual governance statement to be delivered at a council meeting on July 31.
Cllr Green said “unprecedented” parallels with Northamptonshire were made clear to her at a confidential briefing of the LGA, given by the lead inspector who produced the failed council’s “best value inspection” report.
She added: “It’s not that this council is bankrupt. It’s that we are sleepwalking into bankruptcy.”