Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council agreed a rates increase of 7.65% at a special meeting last night in an attempt to address a £7m funding deficit for the next year.
The council has been under pressure since the start of the year after it was revealed that it was at least £69m in debt.
Debates within the Council chamber on Wednesday evening ranged from moving black bin collections to monthly rather than fortnightly, to cutting back on maintenance and repair work to council properties and facilities.
Cost-saving measures agreed by the councillors included the closure of Waterworld in Portrush — a measure which officers said would save £80,000 and the withdrawal of £240,000 in funding for the annual air show in Portrush. A cycling and walking trail in Garvagh Forest will also see maintenance reduced. New car parking charges in Portrush were introduced and increased charges in other town centres which will bring in an extra £825,000 for the council.
The UUP and Alliance received support for no cuts to the funding for Riverside Theatre, Portrush Pipe Band competition and no increases to Lammas Fair stallholders.
Ulster Unionist Party
“This has been one of the most difficult rates setting processes we have been through. It has been undermined at every stage by misinformation and even false accusations from some quarters. Much work has been concluded across a range of Parties which has delivered a rates freeze for businesses and a 7.65% rise on the domestic rate. Tough decisions have had to be taken to reduce costs and raise additional income which we know will not be popular. But we must ensure council services continue to be delivered.”
Democratic Unionist Party
“The DUP proposal, supported by the Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties was not an easy decision for us to make but unfortunately we felt while other parties failed to offer any sensible alternatives, there was no other option at this stage than, step up to the mark and show leadership in order to protect frontline services and event funding including the North West 200, Supercup NI and The Portrush Pipe Band Championships.
Unfortunately, there are still concerns throughout the organisation that elected representatives are being asked to make decisions without full access to all of the relevant information. To address this, our request for a reform package to include a 3-year budget plan and recovery strategy, with targets and KPIs for performance management, has also been addressed with the publication of a ‘Medium Term Financial Plan’, which we will monitor closely and review as necessary in conjunction with the PWC financial report recommendations in order to ensure sustainable financial planning and management continues.
There also needs to be a rank and file review of the organisation from top to bottom with no stone unturned in order to ensure that this situation never happens again.
We as a group are fully aware of the frustration and anger within our communities and take no satisfaction from the difficult decisions which we have had to take in order to reach a balanced solution that provides for the ratepayers needs and the essential services that we all rely on at a value for money cost.
We will continue to work hard in order to restore public confidence and financial stability to the organisation, which will require teamwork between everyone in the council and elimination of current behaviours by some for self interest and favourable headlines.”
“This decision is the result of 4 years of an effective rates freeze by the DUP and UUP in our Council. Sinn Féin proposed over the years for increases in line with inflation and to reflect the introduction of the Living Wage two years ago. These proposals were rejected and instead the finance management in Council offered a ‘comfort blanket’ to allow those two parties to take short-lived populist decisions to set the rate increase at zero. With not enough revenue to pay for the delivery of services, millions of pounds was taken from a Reserves pot which has now almost been depleted. Coupled with poor political decision making in the Chamber, it has taken this financial crisis for the Council’s senior management to clean up and produce much more accurate and timely accounting information. The issues are toxic and we do not accept that this rates hike solves the problems.”
Social Democratic and Labour Party
“We cannot support a hike in rates. We proposed a motion to call in local government financial experts. A motion that was intended to examine the root and branch of this council and to produce an audit confirming where this Council has been going wrong. The motion set out to meticulously detail the problems and, more importantly, what the long-term solutions are. Only then would this Council be able to regain the public’s confidence and offer sustainability.”
Independent Councillor Padraig McShane – “A rates strike of this magnitude is deeply regrettable plus it’s wholly irresponsible. It has attached incredibly high risk when factored alongside our prudential indicators.
“The Council’s overall dept is now beyond £80m – a rise of £11m this year. To service that dept it now cost annually, £10,300,000 or the price of a medium-sized Leisure Centre.”
“We took the very difficult decision to increase domestic rates by 7.65%. This is not something that was taken lightly and comes at the end of a weeks-long process of agreeing painful charges and cuts. We had a choice this evening; either accept the situation as it is or avoid striking a rate and let the Department for Communities set a much higher one.
We agree with those who have said the situation needs investigation and understand why some felt they couldn’t support this increase. We can never allow this to happen again. Hopefully this is the start of putting things right.”