Rates freeze ends but 'austerity' set to continue

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lisa.gregg@thechronicle.uk.com

THE local council will have to find over £3m in savings next year to balance the books after members approved a minimal 1.5 per cent increase in the district rate.

The rise brings to an end a three-year freeze on the district rate unique to Causeway Coast and Glens and pushed through by the council's unionist parties.

Only the UUP remained determined to stick to zero per cent increase for the final year of this council's mandate when members met to strike next year's rate on Thursday.

Even the DUP, backed by all three of the other main parties, considered a fourth year impossible without affecting front line services.

At Thursday's special meeting, members heard staff were facing “ever increasing cost pressure” and “never ending demand for services”.

Chief Executive David Jackson suggested a nine per cent hike would be required to provide the same level of service as the previous year.

He said department heads had worked hard to come up with efficiencies, but even so a 2-3 per cent rates rise would be required to balance the books.

The most significant cost pressure faced next year is a wage bill set to increase by £3.25m.

That's because the council is planning to bring agency staff onto the payroll and adopt the “living wage” for its lowest paid workers.

In addition, said Chief Financial officer David Wright, Environmental Services were facing ever rising waste disposal charges while every other department was facing “general inflationary pressures”.

Nevertheless, the UUP's Richard Holmes compared warnings over cost pressures to “project fear” adopted by the Remain campaign ahead of the EU referendum.

“The doom-mongers have no credibility whatsoever,” he said.

Cllr Holmes insisted council mergers completed in 2014 were designed to save ratepayers cash and his party was determined to see the rates freeze through for one more year.

He suggested a sell-off of assets could help plug the funding gap and went on to identify areas were further cash could be saved, such as leisure centres operating seven-figure losses.

Comparing Causeway Coast and Glen's record to councils controlled by Sinn Fein, he added: “I'm glad we have implemented prudent and sensible decisions.”

The UUP's rate freeze proposal was branded an “utter financial irresponsibility” by Sinn Fein's group leader Kieran Mulholland.

His party initially proposed a 2.5 per cent hike but agreed to compromise when given an undertaking that reserves would be used to plug funding shortfalls.

He suggested unionists on the council had been operating “austerity” since its inception five years ago.

And he said a small rise in rates bills would be more than off set by inevitably increasing charges for things like car parking and burials.

“We will be getting people in the long grass just so unionists can get headlines in the paper,” he said.

“It's irresponsible, it's populist and its a failure of leadership.”

The 1.5 per cent compromise eventually adopted was proposed by the council's sole Alliance party member.

Chris McCaw said he didn't want the council to be known for “fleecing the ratepayer” but a rates freeze for a fourth successive year was unrealistic.

“I don't see how it's possible with the numbers we have been given,” he added.

His proposal was backed by the SDLP's John Deighan who suggested a connection between the UUP's proposed freeze and April's local government poll.

“It's completely reckless and we will pay for it in years to come,” he added.

“This shouldn't be about electioneering. It's about delivering for the people of Causeway Coast and Glens.”

The DUP's Trevor Clarke paid tribute to officers for finding savings needed to keep bills down over the last few years.

He acknowledged that challenging decisions had been made but, like the UUP, he argued that further efficiencies could be made by disposing of assets.

“If anyone is saying we can't make savings then they need to take a long hard look at themselves.”

But he added zero per cent on next year’s bills was simply unachievable without affecting front line services.

“We have looked at the figures and simply can not get to the point where zero per cent is achievable – and that's regrettable.

“We feel that 1.5per cent is probably the best officers can do.”

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