Editor's Viewpoint: Severe rate hikes raise questions
Over the next month or so, ratepayers across Northern Ireland will receive their annual bills. And for those living in Magherafelt, Belfast, Ballymoney and Limavady, the charges will be particularly unwelcome.
For those four councils have put up their rates by between 7% and 8.4%. Householders will wonder why such a severe increase at a time when inflation is running at record low levels.
There are a number of questions that some councils need to answer. Surely at this time of recession, the councils should have been able to get really competitive bids for goods and services?
Have council workers been getting pay increases well in advance of anyone in the private sector and well above the rate of inflation? Are councils building up a golden nest-egg for high ranking executives who will be seeking redundancy when the number of local authorities is reduced from 26 to 11 next year?
Estimates suggest that council chief executives can expect golden goodbyes of around £200,000 and other senior officers of around £160,000 when the mergers take place. Does that mean that next year ratepayers will face even heftier increases?
How rates bills are arrived at — part of them is set by local authorities for council services and part by the Department of the Environment for regional services — has always been shrouded in mystery. Given the wide disparity in charges levied by individual councils, one of the guiding principles of the new local authorities should be greater transparency.
At a time when many ratepayers are finding it hard to make ends meet and are concerned about their own jobs, there will be significant resentment directed towards those councils who seem to be running up higher and higher bills, which the public has to meet. The increased charges in many instances do not appear to be reflected in enhanced public services. Ratepayers, quite rightly, are demanding value for money.