By Peter Zimonjic
Gypsies have left a council with a £50,000 electricity bill because meter readers were too scared to visit a notorious camp to take readings.
Somerset county council claims that Southern Electric staff were too frightened to set foot on the site so issued the council with bills based on estimated figures.
Ian Cairns, the council's gypsy liaison officer, said: "When we realised we had been receiving estimates for a long period of time we asked for a proper reading. That was when we suddenly got the big bill."
Combined with an earlier "mix up" over a water bill at another site, council taxpayers in Somerset are facing a total bill of £93,178.
The combined sum dwarfs the council's entire budget for operating gypsy and traveller sites, which for 2005/06 is £79,100.
The site at Berkley, near Frome, is one of six encampments in Somerset. Residents who live nearby say it is a source of crime and a menace to the community.
Negotiations between the council, Southern Electric and Wessex Water have since reduced the total bill to £60,000, which is expected to be paid out of the council's taxpayer-funded contingency account.
Yesterday, Southern Electric denied that its meter readers were too afraid to enter the site and said the estimated readings were given only because it could not gain access. The council has since installed a new electricity meter which it says will be read monthly by the council's own staff.