A decision to scrap the controversial Lynn incinerator project could bankrupt Norfolk County Council by Christmas, a new report has claimed.
The stark warning was issued ahead of two crucial meetings next week, where the future of the Saddlebow scheme finally looks set to be decided.
But opponents have dismissed the claim, accusing County Hall officials of scaremongering.
A briefing note by the county council’s interim head of finance, Peter Timmins, said cancelling the council’s contract with Cory Wheelabrator would cost the authority £28.9 million over the next four years.
The report, which was issued ahead of the authority’s meeting on Monday, said most of that figure, £25.9 million, would have to be paid within 35 days of a decision being made to terminate the deal, creating a deadline on or around December 19 for the cash to be paid.
Mr Timmins said that cost is more than the council’s available reserves of around £20.8 million and would lead to the prospect of “bankruptcy” and the introduction of measures such as emergency cuts in services or spending freezes if the contract was halted.
He added: “It is a financial step too far.”
But West Norfolk Council leader Nick Daubney yesterday accused county officials of using “emotive” language and trying to force members to make a decision without having access to full information.
An independent financial assessment of the cost of pulling out of the contract had still to be published as the Lynn News went to press yesterday.
And Mr Daubney believes a decision on the future of the plant should be deferred until that report is made available.
He also questioned the claimed risk of bankrupting the county council, adding: “Were we in a position where we had to find that sum of money it would not bankrupt this council.”
Critics have also pointed to a statement published by the council in the spring, which indicated it had usable reserves worth more than £230 million – some 11 times the figure now being reported.
The Green Party group at County Hall says the money could be found to axe the incinerator by what it describes as “prudently” taking money from reserves that have already been earmarked for areas including building maintenance, economic development and IT projects, without triggering a “doomsday” scenario.
And they have demanded that more information is released before Monday’s meeting.
One of the party’s members, Adrian Dearnley, said: “It is not a simple choice of either terminating the contract or bankrupting the council. What are reserves for, if not for this sort of crisis?”
But David Harrison, the council’s cabinet member for waste, said: “Most of these reserves are active funds that will be used to meet existing commitments, or anticipated future costs. These funds will continue to be used over the course of the financial year.
He added: “These funds were set aside for a purpose, and unless that reason has changed, the money is not available for alternative use.
“It is financially naive to take money from reserves which was for a specific purpose without having a plan to replace it.”
However, Mr Daubney said Mr Harrison should “get a grip” of his portfolio.