As a new day begins after the night before, its been a long few days and indeed weeks, as Councillors finally came to a decision on the striking of the rates last night.
After rescheduling the rates decision twice, it was third time luck for the Councillors who set the 2020/21 rates at 7.65% increase on the domestic rate and 0.01% on the non- domestic rate.
But there has been mixed reactions from the parties in Council after the rates passed with 20 FOR and 16 AGAINST.
Cllr Chris Caw spoke on behalf of his party shortly after the meeting finished saying:
“We took the very difficult decision this evening 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.
“I 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.”
The DUPs John McAuley, who along with his party colegues, the UUP and Alliance supported the rate figures, issued their statement:
“Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council have agreed on a domestic rate rise of 7.65% which in monetary terms equates to an rates bill increase of approximately £38/£1000, whilst securing a 0.01% business rate.
“This brings the total rates increase since the formation of CC&GBC to 9.15%, which is under the rate of inflation and the 2nd lowest council in Northern Ireland for increases with the average being 11.63%.
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 is 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.”
But not all parties were happy with the striking of the rates, with Cllr Cara McShane, Sinn Féin’s Council group leader, saying:
“Tonight’s 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.
“Sinn Féin brought in the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy last week to provide immediate assistance in our rates setting process. We have also supported the call for a forensic audit and review of structures within Council.
“We have demanded a medium to long term plan to help ensure that this Council doesn’t find itself in this situation again next year or the year after. It is imperative that every decision we take is in the interests of protecting rate payers and Council services.”
The SDLP were also unhappy with last nights decision and stated that they ‘cannot support a hike’, going on to state:
“We proposed a motion to call in local government financial experts. A motion that was intended to examine root and branch the senior workings 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.
“We are £68.7 million pounds in debt.
“The most recent Performance Improvement Report, issued in November by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, indicates that this Council has not performed to the standards expected or addressed the serious issues confronting it.
“A CIPFA report does not contradict anything that the SDLP has been saying for some time now and has confirmed that the Council’s General Fund is “dangerously low”.
“No organisation, regardless of size, can operate without reserves. Our reserves are so low that we are being advised that our only option is to build them back up. They are, at present, effectively useless.
We will be in a worryingly precarious position for years to come. This decision to strike this rate is not a one-off decision for a one-off rainy day. Without independent experts and a plan, our ratepayers will be shouldering this mess for years to come.
“Whilst there are still serious question marks hanging over our financial affairs, we cannot lend our support. A hike in rates does not solve our financial problems and the ratepayer should not be compensating for Council mismanagement.
“The ratepayer needs assurance that these financial problems are being put to bed. We have a moral responsibility to our constituents to take control of the situation, to correct it and to ensure that it does not happen again. We also have an obligation to demand openness and transparency. The only way that can happen, the only way in which this council can win back public confidence, is by calling in the experts and we are disappointed that our efforts to do that have been consistently thwarted. What have we got to hide?”
Independent Councillor Padraig McShane
As the only Independent Councillor in Council and not representing a political party, Mr McShane voted against the rates alongside the SDLP & Sinn Féin and has repeated his call for an external audit.
“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 debt is now beyond £80m – a rise of £11m this year. To service that dept it now costs annually, £10,300,000 or the price of a medium-sized leisure Centre.”