Belfast Telegraph

Stormont crisis 'could delay issuing of rates bills'

By Noel McAdam

This year's rates bills could be delayed due to the unfolding crisis at Stormont.

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir's department last night confirmed that bills could be late dropping through doors.

The Sinn Fein minister is responsible for setting the regional rate at Stormont, while the province's 11 councils are required by law to set their own district rates.

But with no budget agreed by the Executive, no regional rate has been announced.

Councils' chief finance officers are concerned they will not have any information on the regional rate by the time their deadline of February 15 looms.

A senior local government source last night said: "There is a lot of uncertainty about this at the moment. We are trying to ascertain whether the councils will have the information they need."

The Alliance Party has tabled a motion for a possible debate in the Assembly next week on the "failure" of the Stormont Executive to set a regional rate.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that the inability of the Assembly to set a regional rate "could cause serious disruption to local and central government services, as it is not clear if Land and Property Services would have any authority to collect the district rate only".

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance explained: "The annual process for the setting of the regional rate normally follows Executive agreement on a budget, and subsequently approval by the Assembly on the annual per cent increase.

"In the absence of an Executive and Assembly, these processes would not be possible for setting the 2017/18 regional rate within the established timeframe."

Mr O Muilleoir, who has announced a revamp of the rating system in Northern Ireland, yesterday met with officials to look at a range of options "to prevent any losses to the public purse".

The Finance Department added: "Rates bills will still fall due for the coming year whatever the outcome of the political difficulties.

"As regional rates and district council rates must be levied as one rate, on a rates bill, district councils in striking their rates are statutorily bound to do so by February 15, 2017, based on their expenditure requirements. This process will operate as normal at council level and is not related to the striking of the regional rate."

Around 7,000 Northern Ireland homes are set to face higher rates bills in a revamp which will raise more than £16m for the Stormont Executive overall. Mr O Muilleoir has insisted the shake-up will ensure the rates burden is more "broadly shouldered".

Councils will also be able to raise up to £10m by striking their own non-domestic rate in future.

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