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Council chief's whopping £275,000 pay-off raises fears of local government reform's spiralling costs

Local politicians accused of being lavish with cash

By Rebecca Black and Donna Deeney

The spending of the 11 new super councils across Northern Ireland has been blasted as "lavish" at a time of deep austerity.

Former Alliance councillor and MLA Seamus Close made the accusation as details of the areas of spend by the new local government administrations was revealed.

Mr Close said the intent of the reorganisation of local government had been to save money, but he said anyone who believed the new 11 super councils will do that in the short-term is "living in cloud-cuckoo land".

"Councils will be faced with the question of chief executives, redundancies, enhanced pension schemes, name changes, rebranding... and on top of that I understand the councillors will be getting enhanced allowances," he said.

"So, any talk about saving money in the short-term is mythical, and when you consider the news of 550 senior citizens having their home help services cut, allegedly on a temporary basis, it makes you question where our priorities are."

Mr Close urged politicians to focus on the important issues.

"We are told that NI Water employees will be working to rule, that street lights will be going out because of cutbacks," he said.

"Austerity seems to be impacting ordinary people, but then you have these lavish sums of money wasted by politicians trying to make themselves important."

Rebranding is thought to be one of the highest areas of spend for the new bodies.

In addition the level of redundancy payouts for chief executives has come under scrutiny, including the golden handshake of £275,000 for the chief executive of Derry City Council.

Other councils are expected to make payouts along similar lines for top officials made redundant when the new bodies take over in April next year.

The councils will pay off redundant posts according to the entire length of service the employee has served in local government - not just in that particular authority.

It's understood councils across Northern Ireland will fully fund the local government reform payoff packages with no extra money from Stormont.

The Department of the Environment oversees the scheme.

A spokesman said: "A severance scheme applicable to anyone who is made redundant as a result of local government reform has been negotiated and agreed between management and trade unions through the Local Government Reform Joint Forum.

"DoE will be putting that scheme into legislation.

"However, it will be for the new councils to manage the agreed redundancy scheme, and the department will not be involved in any decisions about the number or nature of redundancies in each council."

Ms O'Connor's severance deal has been worked out based on her 15 years' employment in local government. Although only three of these were in the city, it is Derry City Council that will pick up the entire cost. Her pay-off was negotiated as a £165,500 redundancy payment and a pension plan of almost £110,758.

Ms O'Connor has defended the amount of money she is due and said the same criteria was applied to her as with a number of redundancy deals for senior management figures in councils right across Northern Ireland.

She said: "This was a matter that was discussed during confidential business at a council meeting where I was not present. I have not had written confirmation of my redundancy package.

"I can say that the figure in the media will not be a one-off payment, but it is a deal made up of a number of parts, including pension provision.

"This is based on my 15 years of employment with local government and is not just for the three years I have been with Derry City Council.

"It marks my departure from local government. It is taxable and it certainly will not mean that I can retire.

"There has been nothing additional given to me and I find the way it has been presented in the media quite mischievous."

Some of the new independent councillors did not give their approval to the package.

Gary Donnelly said: "There was no way I could stand over a redundancy package like this at a time when there are many other council workers like binmen who are still waiting to get their redundancy, and it is a lot less than this. So many people in this city are struggling to feed their families in these tough economic times, so to agree to pay this obscene amount of money is wrong."

Background

The Belfast Telegraph revealed that the 11 shadow councils are already spending thousands of pounds on 'fact-finding' trips to Great Britain, and in June we revealed that new Belfast councillors had been offered a bus trip to get to know the city they had been elected to govern. The total cost of the GB trips was almost £20,000 of public money, while no cost of the bus tour has emerged.

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