Independent Councillor Stephanie Quigley has expressed her disappointment that her proposal of a 0% rates increase for Causeway Coast & Glens was voted against and instead an increase of 2.49% was accepted by the majority of members at a special council meeting on Thursday evening.
Councillor Quigley told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that she believed this was “the worst time ever to increase rates”.
Cllr Quigley had proposed a 0% rise and the setting up of a £1.5M hardship fund which was seconded by Independent Glens Councillor Padraig McShane.
Speaking to the Chamber on Thursday evening, Cllr Quigley said; “I propose a zero percent increase on the rates.
“It is utterly preposterous that this council even contemplate any increase in our rates. We have endured one of the most difficult years ever living through this pandemic.
“I have been in close communication with some of our fantastic advice centres. On a daily basis they are dealing at the cold front with those most affected.
“They have described a “new level of poverty” that they have never witnessed before, working with people furloughed, small business owners and practitioners who haven’t earned a single penny and agency staff who have been simply told they don’t qualify for any help other than universal credit.
“There are people today in our borough having to take mortgage breaks and choose whether or not to put food on their tables or fuel in their tanks.
“I am quite sure that most if not all elected representatives have received phone calls from their constituents who are at their wits ends due to this financial crises they have faced in this pandemic either waiting on government help for months or simply falling through the criteria for support.
“The NI Executive has chosen to freeze the regional rate for businesses at last year’s substantially reduced level, and freeze the domestic rates for the second year in a row.
“The NI Executive has also provided an additional £100 million funding this year for local councils.
“So along with the 0% increase I propose that this council set up a £1.5 million hardship fund to alleviate the suffering of the poorest and most affected in our borough.
“Proposals of options for criteria for this fund can be drafted by the senior management team and brought to the Chamber for discussions and agreement of the full council.”
Speaking in support of Cllr Quigley, Cllr McShane said: “I wish to second the proposal from Cllr Quigley in the full knowledge that the monies are available and that the poorest in our community require immediate help.
“The punitive measures currently being proposed are the basis of covering up earlier financial indiscretions by this council.
“This council furloughing staff this year saving millions on estimates? Wages included in the estimates for last year were paid for by the Exchequer.
“Millions were also saved on running costs of facilities and services which were closed. One very obvious questions which everyone will want an answer to is how only six million was saved this year when so many services were cut and hundreds of staff furloughed.
“Additional grants running to millions were made available to this council. Despite all that, they still pressed ahead with punitive measures of applying VAT onto caravan owners.
“It is important we look closely and question the rates estimates themselves.”
Councillor Angela Mulholland was unable to attend the meeting, however, she offered her backing to Cllr Quigley saying: “I don’t think we should support the rates percentage. Especially when so many have lost their jobs, been furloughed throughout the pandemic, it’s not fair on many in our community who find themselves struggling and then there is the added mental anxiety associated with all of this.
“I don’t think this year is the right time to set an increase. If our council is now so financially stable as many are stating, let it carry the community for once.”
Members voted on Cllr Quigley’s amended proposal of 0% increase and £1.5 million hardship fund, which fell with two for and 36 against. The proposal to accept the 2.49% increase carried with 36 votes for and two against.
Speaking after the vote, Cllr Quigley added: “I have been inundated with phone calls during this pandemic with people in crisis and in hardship. I am disappointed for those people in financial hardship.
“Our council received huge grants from central government and saved £6 million plus this year in the furlough schemes and closing facilities. I had spoken at length to the agencies who are working with the poor and they know at first hand the sacrifices people are having to make.”