AS the borough council levied a 1.59 per cent rise in the local rates on Monday night - the lowest increase in 16 years - an SDLP councillor has pushed through a proposal for a zero rise next year.
Councillor Joe Nelson has cited the cost of “inefficient business processes, the council’s grievance culture, absenteeism and the spiralling costs of legal advice” as a clutch of reasons why the council failed to deliver the magical zero rise this time around, pointing out that Belfast has managed a minus two percent figure.
Councillor Nelson’s proposal during the ‘in committee’ session was supported all round. He said,”I proposed that we should set ourselves a challenge to set an aspirational increase of a zero rise for year 2014-15, even though we will start to feel the impact on rates of major projects like the new leisure centre and the costs of merging with Armagh and Banbridge councils under the Review of Public Administration (RPA).
“Setting this aspirational target will allow us to focus on how efficiently our organisation is designed to deliver services to the ratepayer in the 21st century. I was elected to ensure that we deliver the best quality services at the most efficient cost to our ratepayers, and I don’t believe we are achieving that.”
The rise was confirmed from the Civic Centre on Tuesday morning, with a statement that the council’s rise - when added to the regional rate from Stormont - meant that the overall impact was 2.2 per cent.
“The increase equates to a rise of £1.25 per month or 29p per week for the average home domestic ratepayer and £16.40 per month or £3.78 per week for the average non-domestic ratepayer,” the statement went on. “The council has worked to manage budgets and generate efficiencies to free up money to pay for additional investment, while committed to keeping the district rate below inflation which is currently 2.7 per cent.
“This rate will allow the council to deliver significant additional investment, like capital investment of £30m over the next three years to help build assets including a new leisure centre and renovation to Kernan Cemetery.”
The main council parties patted themselves on the back after the 1.59 per cent rate was struck. A statement from DUP said, “Throughout the process, DUP worked with directors to achieve this low rates increase. We have, in the past few weeks, met officers on four occasions and worked with them right to the wire to deliver our promise of low rates rises.”
Sinn Fein group leader Councillor Johnny McGibbon said it was “a small piece of good news for householders and local business in the middle of the current economic situation”.
And he panned DUP for “partisan interest when, on a whim, they added a half million pound football pitch to a community development project and also insisted on an £82,000 spend for cutting grass which Roads Services owned. These two items alone equate to around 2.5% in terms of rates.”
The Ulster Unionists, though, said that all parties had played a part, with Councillor Kenneth Twyble pointing out that the original estimated rise of over three per cent had been halved, “with sensible economics, and no single party having the right to claim the exclusive rights to keeping the figure so low.”