A meeting of Mid-Ulster District Council on Thursday night culminated in the striking of the local rates for the 2016/17 financial year. Councillors were given detailed financial reports from the Chief Executive and Finance Officers which highlighted increasing financial pressures facing the council. Amongst some of the additional pressures Mid-Ulster Council is required to budget for are additional costs such as its blue bin contracts, increasing landfill taxes and regional employees 1% pay awards.
Speaking following the meeting Sinn Féin Group leader Ronan Mc Ginley said:
“Sinn Féin as always enters budget setting discussions seeking to strike as low a rate as possible for the ratepayers within our area. Our party promotes the advancement of economic development, culture and regeneration works while supporting rural communities, our towns and villages and best promoting our local tourism product. In doing so this inevitably comes with some costs. At all times we seek to protect the front line services which Council delivers.
“Unfortunately what we initially heard being proposed by the SDLP and unionist parties were proposals at cost cutting that would have meant severe cuts to these front line services – the out-workings off which would have meant closures of some of our main leisure centres etc.
“We witnessed many attempts at point-scoring and political grandstanding of the highest degree involving unionists and the SDLP members within the chamber on Thursday night. After a number of recent rates workshops and party leaders briefings and meetings at which details on the increased pressures were outlined by senior council staff, unionist and SDLP councillors persisted in trying to bid-down each other in an attempt at political point scoring over Sinn Féin.
“The proposals which were brought to the table by Unionists and SDLP were absolutely reckless and at best neither thought through nor costed. When Sinn Féin asked these parties as to where they would make the swingeing cuts, no answers were forthcoming.
“The unionist and SDLP proposals of a marginal 0.8% and 0.5% rates increase would have meant council could not have operated in its present form without possible closure of leisure centres. Council would have been acting illegally as it would have been in breach of maintaining its statutory levels of reserves.
“Council then received a report from Council’s chief-executive who stated that in order to maintain existing services Council needed an absolute minimum increase of 1.7% to the annual rates. This was to effectively stand still and prior to any additional or new services being considered to be receiving funding. The chief-executive went on to say that for some time now all Council departments had went through radical cost-cutting initiatives to make savings but due to the additional statutory pressures which were outside of Council`s control the 1.7% increase was the minimum required.
Commenting on additional money’s being made available for Arts, Sport and Minority Languages, Cllr Sean McPeake said
“During previous rates striking workshops Sinn Féin had identified that there was a requirement for some additional Council funding for sports and arts provisions as well as duties and responsibilities in respect of minority languages. Mid Ulster District Council should be committed to delivering for the rate payers. Equality of services is absolutely necessary. Therefore, it was important to ensure there is enough resource across the entire district for the Arts, for our sports clubs and for all our minority languages. Sinn Féin was upfront and put forward a proposal that would finance these important council obligations. The Sinn Féin proposal on the night was to adopt the Chief Finance Officer’s recommendation of a 1.7% increase plus some additional finances for sports provision, the arts and minority languages which meant an overall rate increase of 1.95%.
The Sinn Féin position which has been consistent in our approach to striking the rates was entirely vindicated. Those parties who played political grandstanding for the duration of the lengthy debate acted recklessly and without regard for all ratepayers and service users within our district, offering no proposals as to where additional savings would be made.
The DUP, UUP alongside independent councillor, Barry Monteith voted against the 1.9% rate increase which if rejected would have meant no funding for this year`s capital sports grant and no much needed additional monies for the arts and minority language`s.
At the end of the day I was glad to see that common sense eventually prevailed with some with the SDLP having a change of mind and eventually supported our stand to protect frontline services for all the people of our district. It was just a pity that they adopted the same position as the unionists for most of the debate until they had the good fortune to realise during a lengthy adjournment that they were presenting a real threat to the roll out of first class service provision throughout our district.”