Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein hits out at council's £17k 'junket' to USA

By Mark Bain

A row has erupted after funding of £17,000 was found for a council delegation to travel to the US on a trade mission.

The party from Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council making the trip to Phoenix, Arizona, included nine councillors and representatives from seven businesses.

While the council said it expects more than $1m (£780,000) in trade deals as a result of the visit to its twin city of Gilbert from November 13 to 21, one representative has said the council should be putting the interests of ratepayers first. The council confirmed the trip cost £1,000 per person, with it also meeting expenses.

Sinn Fein councillor AnneMarie Logue said it won't sit well with residents who have seen cuts to their services.

She said: "If, as they say, there's £1m in trade deals coming this way then that's great, but I went on this trip a couple of years ago and I've yet to see the benefits.

"Is there a proper business case demonstrating the worth of undertaking such a trip with so many people?

"We live in an age of technology, so what's wrong with using Skype to talk to our friends in the USA? I'm sure our ratepayers will appreciate the council looking at ways to save money and put it into our communities instead.

"We've seen a town like Crumlin denied a Christmas tree due to a lack of funding. We have street lighting that needs fixed but budget constraints mean people are being left in the dark.

"First and foremost we would be serving the needs of our ratepayers by providing the services they expect."

Harry Fone of right-wing pressure group the TaxPayers' Alliance also expressed concern.

"When taxpayers work long hours and hand over their money to the Government they expect it to go on first class public services, not trips to the States for politicians," he said.

"Some families paying big rates bills can barely afford a holiday for themselves, so paying for flights and hotels for officials will not go down well."

Antrim and Newtownabbey mayor Paul Michael led the delegation.

It also included council chief executive Jacqui Dixon and her husband, who travelled at his own expense, plus representatives from several businesses - including some from outside the borough.

But Mr Michael claimed at least $1m will be generated for the economy by the visit.

"This trip will pay for itself many times over," he said.

"Over 42 business sales appointments were made in advance of the trip and this has been fundamental to its success.

"We also promoted our new Game Of Thrones global tourist attraction to over 10,000 potential customers at an international event during the visit.

"This visit, and the link with Gilbert and the Phoenix area, represents a legitimate, significant part of our economic development strategy and we will continue to explore opportunities."

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