A multi-million pound savings package that will cut frontline services and trigger up to 500 redundancies at Dorset County Council has been rubber-stamped.

After months of vigorous debate and behind-the-scenes number crunching, councillors have voted through a programme of cuts worth £31.1m for the new financial year, which begins in April.

The savings have been prompted by an unprecedented funding crisis, triggered by a massive reduction in the council’s settlement from central government, which will force the council to save £55m by 2013/14.

DCC is consulting on redundancies, and could shed 500 full-time posts in the next year as it bids to fill the financial black hole.

Presenting the budget to a meeting of all councillors at County Hall yesterday (THUR 17), council leader, Cllr Angus Campbell, told colleagues:

“The scale of the cuts is without precedent and we have had to work very hard and fast in our drive towards a balanced budget.”

The cuts package was approved by support from Conservative and independent councillors.

Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Janet Dover, presented her group’s alternative budget, which included an additional £3.5m spend on roads, apprentices, bus services, youth services, school crossing patrols, and libraries.

Speaking after the meeting, she said: “When these £31m of savings come in, the public will be really shocked.

“At the moment, people have campaigned on important issues, but there are so many cuts that will be felt in their daily lives.”

The 2011/12 budget lays bare the scale of cuts that will now be implemented to Dorset's public services.

Last year, Eric Pickles MP, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, told the House of Commons that DCC was the nation’s only local authority to have had its “spending power” increased.

His calculation was based on the inclusion of a grant previously allocated to NHS Dorset, but now to be shared between the two public authorities.

Mr Pickles' claim has since been dismissed by Cllr Campbell and chief financial officer, Paul Kent, who said the council’s settlement had fallen in real terms by an “unprecedented” £18m in 2011/12.

The shortfall has prompted the toughest medium term financial strategy in the council’s history with a savings target of £55m to be realised by 2013/14.

Medium term savings of £4.2m have been targeted from the budget for community care, while a reduction to the budget for highways and transportation is expected to yield savings of nearly £3.3m by 2013/14.

Staff reward packages have been targeted for some of the biggest savings in the medium term strategy. A two-year pay freeze is expected to save £3.5m, while changes to terms and conditions of employment have earmarked for savings of £2.63m over three years.

But it is the council’s choice of targets for smaller savings that have drawn the greatest public outcry with proposals to close libraries and withdraw the salaries of school lollipop crossing staff generating a total saving of £1m.

A petition of 13,000 signatures was presented to the meeting by campaigners fighting proposals to close 20 of 34 services run by the council’s Dorset Library Service in a bid to save £800,000.

The controversial offer could see the threatened libraries shut in 2012 if communities do not step forward to run them on a voluntary basis.

Tim Lee, acting chairman for the Association of the Friends of Dorset Libraries (Adlib), presented an alternative package to realise the £800,000 savings target.

His detailed proposals included plans for a 10 per cent cut in opening hours for libraries open more than 10 hours a week, and to reduce staff costs at library service HQ by 10 per cent.

He also suggested reducing the book budget by 50 per cent to £400,000 a year for four years until economic conditions improved.

Councillors voted to give serious consideration to Adlib’s proposals, which will now be considered in a formal three-month consultation.

Three petitioners spoke against withdrawing the salaries of school crossing guards to realise savings of £200,000 a year.

DCC has pledged to fund the cost of training, insuring, and equipping volunteer lollipop staff if schools or town and parish councils pledge to meet salary costs.

Mothers, Liz Howard and Liz Norman, presented an 1,800-signature petition to save the crossing on Church Road, Ferndown, which they said was used by 75 per cent of the town’s juvenile population to reach the first, middle, and upper schools.

Mrs Howard said the £1.5m estimated cost to the public purse from a road fatality dwarfed the savings the council hoped to realise from its countywide proposals for crossing guards.

Campaigner, Helen Tofts, who co-ordinated opposition to the proposals from schools across Dorset, vowed to fight on after councillors voted for further consultation on the issue and to form a policy development panel.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Spencer Flower, the cabinet member for resources, said front-loading the cuts had made the 2011/12 budget especially tough.

He praised members of a so-called star chamber of senior councillors and officers who had formed the Budget Working group, whom he said had worked hard to limit the impact of this year’s cuts to back office operations.

“There is understandable concern in the community that the council has had to make cuts to some of its frontline services, but 65 per cent of the £31m savings will come from back office,” he said.

“We have got two more years to get to £55m of savings, but this year was the difficult one,” he said.

He said the council will still have to find savings of £19m in 2012/13 and warned against delaying decisions which he said would worsen the council’s financial position.