A COUNCILLOR says Mid & East Antrim Borough Council has debts of over “£63 million”.
The comments by Ballymena Traditional Unionist Voice councillor Matthew Armstrong were made as the council struck the new rates at a meeting in Ballymena.
After the meeting, Cllr Armstrong revealed what he had said.
The councillor had said: “Quite rightly, each and every ratepayer in our Borough expects nothing less than value for money from their council.
“And there are many things which our council does and have done which can be held up as examples of providing our citizens with a service or outlet where there has been an obvious need.
“Only today for example, council supported the launch of the Here2Help app which will provide much needed support for people suffering from mental illness, crisis or addiction.
“There is also the play park strategy which has, and continues to be, a tremendous exercise in community engagement – where council is listening to the views and requirements of residents on an area to area basis.
“As an example, with the continued hard work of council, and help from outside funding steams, The People’s Park in this town will have the potential to be one of the premier destinations for the young people of our Borough.
“Commendable too was the immediate response of this council to the liquidation of Wrightbus last autumn, where many of those who sadly found themselves out of work so suddenly were in receipt of as much help and support as possible.
“Those, Madam Mayor, were dark days, but Council was right where it was meant to be, at the forefront leading the way.
“Being in a position to lead the way however can have its drawbacks and as well as its responsibilities it is incumbent on council to not only balance the books, but to continue providing services at the same time.
“That particular juggling act is no easy task, but there are decisions that we as a collective can take to bridge the gap between what is required by council to perform its duties and what is acceptable to the ratepayer.
“Indeed, there has been delivery on two of the issues raised by this party during last year’s process, namely the reduction in the member’s hospitality budget and cuts to the frequency of the Connections magazine.
“There is however still more work to be done, and whilst council continues to borrow money and we remain in debt of upwards of £63 million, the common sense approach is to ask how that total can be reduced so that we don’t end up in the unenviable position of some neighbouring authorities.”
That was believed to be a reference to Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council.
The BBC reported this week the Causeway Council was “£68.7million in debt”.
At the Causeway Council rates meeting this week there was a round of cut-backs and a rates rise of over for seven per cent for householders.
The rates rise at Mid & East Antrim Borough Council for householders is 1.74 per cent.
Added Cllr Armstrong: “With the City Deal looming large on the horizon, and the likelihood that council would be compelled to borrow still more, it would be prudent to ensure that we are not constrained to the detriment of our long term ambitions by being at, or close to, our ceiling.
“In the year ahead I hope that these conversations can take place, and while there will undoubtedly be some difficult decisions to be made, TUV will not be found wanting.
“On balance, Madam Mayor, the proposed rate increase of 1.74% is likely to be amongst the lowest in our Province, coming in below the rate of inflation.
“Taken in the round, we believe it is reflective of the requirement to ensure continued service delivery while also representing fairness to our ratepayers. In the realisation that there is still much to be done, our members will support it this evening.”
Bannside TUV councillor Timothy Gaston also revealed what he said at the meeting.
He had said: “I would like to echo Cllr Armstrong’s remarks.
“TUV would also like to add our thanks to the finance team for their professionalism and clear presentation of figures throughout the process.
“I’m glad to see that we have made progress this year when setting the rate.
– We have delivered a balanced budget for the first time.
– We have cut the cost to produce the Connections magazine by reducing it to 2 issues a year.
– We have reduced elected members hospitality by 25%.
“The progress made is a step forward but to get TUV support for next year we want to see progress made on the following:
– A Connections opt out mechanism for those who read it online or don’t read it at all.
– Removal from the rates of the budget set aside for the ‘neighbouring property’ as there is currently no identified need or plan for it.
– Review the extra funding for the NI Open on a yearly basis after doubling our commitment to the event this year.
“These are what I class as the daily running decisions for the chamber to make but we need to go further.
“Now that the first term of Mid and East Antrim is over and the bedding in period has passed I believe councillors need to step up and look at the unpopular decisions.
“The City Deal projects in Ballymena and Carrick along with the Heathrow Hub has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity and we need to be ready to grab it with both hands.
“We want to see reports dealing with:
– Making all car parks £1 for 5 hours.
– Looking at the future need for Larne chamber and if it is deemed to be needed then it should be relocated to the Larne Town Hall and the Smiley buildings freed up.
– Looking at the future of Ardeevin offices, council are considering new building civic offices, then we need look at its future and how it can be best used for the rate payer.
– We need to look again at the long term investment plans for the Gobbins. Unless TUV get guarantees that this council will still be running the Gobbins in 5 years time we query if we should really be making the significant investment ear marked for it.
– Our asset base is too heavy. We need to continue to look at our portfolio and start to release development briefs on lands and buildings we don’t use to their full potential. We believe Joint Ventures are the best way to get a return so that in future we are funding part of our rates from alternative sources.
“Next year I want to see a process where we look at the revenue first. Once we settle the revenue then we can amend our capital plan accordingly based on the rate we wish to set.
“TUV look forward to 2020 being a year when council makes significant investment in our families and next generation job provision.
“Locals are excited to see the new park and kids’ MUGA in Cullybackey starting next week.
“Cllr Armstrong mentioned the People Park. The one million refurbishment of the People’s Park to mark its 150th anniversary will create a hub for families to come and enjoy the outdoors in a top class destination park.
“The scoping work for the Ballymena Leisure Centre is progressing. We look forward to finalising the plans as we look to encourage our people to get out and get healthy.
“The I4C City Deal project has the potential to create the next generation jobs and make Mid and East Antrim a Northern Ireland leader in attracting companies and investment.
“There’s much work to be done Madam Mayor. Let’s hope the councillors won’t be found wanting when it comes to the unpopular decisions which need to be taken in order to allow us to continue to set a sustainable rate and deliver for our communities.”
After the rates meeting in Ballymena this week Mid & East Antrim Borough Council had issued the following press release with the headline: ‘Efficiencies in Mid and East Antrim ensure ‘fair and balanced’ rates process’.
It added: “Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has announced details of local rates for the next financial year.
“The rate set is aimed at mitigating the financial burden on residents and businesses whilst ensuring high-quality frontline services and the delivery of major investments planned in Mid and East Antrim.
“These projects include Council’s private partnership bid for a Heathrow Logistics Hub, the ongoing development of digital infrastructure, facilitating the redevelopment of Glenarm, growing hotel provision, expansion of The Gobbins, the regeneration of St Patrick’s Barracks, establishing an Innovation Centre, and substantial investment in Carrickfergus town centre.
“The rate striking was unanimously agreed by Elected Members at a special meeting of council on Wednesday evening.
“Mid and East Antrim’s rate increase is among the lowest of Northern Ireland’s 11 local government authorities, with the body working to a very strict set of principles to ensure a rate which is value for money for the public whilst Mid and East Antrim remains one of the top performing councils.
“On 12 February, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council agreed a domestic district rate increase of 1.74% – approximately 0.14% less than last year’s level of rate increase.
“Council’s portion of the rates amounts to 48% of the rates bills received by residents and businesses in Mid and East Antrim, with the remainder set by the Stormont Executive.
“The percentage increase represents an increase of 16 pence per week for the average household in Mid and East Antrim (equivalent to £8.32 per year), with the final total to be confirmed on the announcement of the regional rate.
“The impact of the ‘Reval 2020’ exercise carried out by Land and Property Services has resulted in an additional 2.90% on the non-domestic rate.
“The district rate increase represents a domestic rate of 0.4371 pence in the pound and a non-domestic rate of 30.9186 pence for 2020/21.”
The press release included the following comments from the Mayor.
Mayor, Councillor Maureen Morrow, said the striking of a domestic district rate increase at 1.74% was achieved due to continued efficiencies by Council’s Elected Members and senior management team.
The Mayor said: “I commend the hard work of our elected members and council officers to drive continued efficiencies and savings throughout Mid and East Antrim.
“They have done so while also delivering and maintaining exceptional services to our ratepayers and identifying major investment opportunities for our borough.
“Our Council has again struck a rate which is fair and reasonable – in line with our consistent approach which is to keep our rates as low as possible whilst ensuring delivery on our commitments to secure and create jobs in Mid and East Antrim, attract new investment, grow our tourism industry and other key objectives.
“We are all too aware of the challenging economic climate and its impact on citizens and businesses, and they have been at the heart of our decision-making when striking this rate.
“This rate was achieved despite our borough having the largest drop in GVA (Gross Value Added) previously and losing more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs in recent years.
“Local government reform is delivering for our ratepayers and we continue to see local decision-making bring substantial improvements for the citizens of the Borough.”
The press release continued: “Through Reval2020, 74,000 non-domestic properties, including shops, offices and factories, have been officially revalued for the first time since 2015.”
A Council spokesperson told ‘Ballymena Daily’: “Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has reduced its legacy debt of the three amalgamated councils by £4m, while at the same time investing circa £30m in a number of high-profile projects and maintenance, including ongoing works at Blackhead Path, completion of The Gobbins clifftop path and Visitors Centre, dredging works at Carrickfergus Marina, refurbishment works at both the Innovation Centre at Ecos and Portglenone Community Centre, and delivery of play parks in the borough.
“At the same time, Council continues to grow jobs and secure private-sector investment in the borough, and has been very successful in securing external funding, e.g. Village Renewal of more than £2.5m.
“Our councillors and officers work very closely together to deliver continued efficiencies, and last week unanimously agreed the lowest domestic rates increase across Northern Ireland.”