Devon and Cornwall's new police commissioner faces the prospect of defying the Government over council tax increases or putting an additional £1.6 million black hole in the force's finances.
The force is already grappling with having to make savings of some £50 million by 2015, which will see officer numbers shrink from 3,500 to 2,810. Some 500 police staff will also be axed.
Now it has emerged that the new police and crime commissioner could put a further hole in the force's budget if they accept the Government's offer of a 1 per cent uplift in grant in exchange for freezing its share of council tax.
The Police Federation, the staff association which represents constables, sergeants and inspectors, said that could cost the force the equivalent of another 50 officers.
"Prior to the cuts the force had 3,500 officers," Sergeant Nigel Rabbitts, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall federation branch said.
"Reducing that number to 3,200 has been a challenge and reducing it below 3,200, we believe, is not sustainable.
"The force can not deliver an effective service, the service that the public expect and deserve and that officers want to provide, with less than that.
"Obviously the decision on the level of council tax rests with the new commissioner, whoever that might be, but the repercussions of another cut in the budget are unthinkable."
George Osborne has announced an extension to the deal for councils, police forces, and fire services for a third year. However, it is worth only 1 per cent instead of the 2.5 per cent which was offered last year.
Devon and Cornwall Police Authority – which will be replaced by the commissioner in November – has based its medium-term financial strategy on an increase in council tax precept of 2.6 per cent a year. With each percentage point increase generating roughly £1 million in revenue, accepting the Government's 1 per cent offer would leave the force another £1.6 million short.
Only a last-minute compromise at the police authority budget meeting in February prevented what many thought would effectively end local policing in Devon and Cornwall. A block vote by five Tories downed a proposed 3.94 per cent increase while the other 11 members of the authority voted against a freeze. A 2 per cent council tax compromise deal was agreed which was regarded as having saved the jobs of 58 officers in neighbourhood policing. As a result, Band D bills rose by £3.13 a year to £159.66.
Alison Seabeck, Labour MP for Plymouth Moorview, said the financial constraints "made a mockery" of the Government's arguments for introducing commissioners.
"It is going to be very difficult for the new commissioner, when they have only just got the job, to be told by central government they are effectively imposing a £1.6 million hole in their budget," she said.
"This is central government again telling policing areas around the country what money they will be able to raise and what they will have to spend.
"Potentially it does completely tie their hands financially and it does put additional pressure on an already overstretched police service."
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, added: "I'm not against freezing council tax given the pressure on hard-pressed families' incomes, it's the huge 20 per cent cut in Government support for the police which has been devastating to the service and is hampering their ability to fight crime effectively."