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War of words over Causeway council's huge £70m cash shortfall

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Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council confirmed it was £68.7 million in debt.

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council confirmed it was £68.7 million in debt.

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council confirmed it was £68.7 million in debt.

A war of words has erupted over a Northern Ireland council's £70m debt.

One Sinn Fein councillor blamed unionists for refusing to increase rates while a UUP representative said rates had been frozen to help business and residents and there were other long-standing issues which contributed to the debt mountain.

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council confirmed on Thursday it is £68.7 million in debt, forcing councillors to call in the Audit Office.

The funding shortfall means the council could be forced to cull events such as the Portrush Air Show in a bid to restore a reserve fund, while leisure services workers have been warned their contracts could be terminated if they do not accept a pay cut.

UUP councillor William McCandless blamed the debt on a failure to offload council buildings such as the old Moyle centre in Ballycastle, as well shelling out millions to operate leisure centres.

"The problem we have is nothing to do with the 0% increase last year," he said.

A motion passed on Tuesday called for independent accountants to make recommendations and work with the council to prepare a financial plan.

The Department for Communities recommends the reserve fund held by the council should stand at £10m, but the amount held in reserve at the North Coast council is only £1.5m, according to councillors.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) is to visit the council to advise on setting a new rate for citizens before a legal deadline of February 15.

Mr McCandless said the council has already been given advice by accountants and that councillors needed to admit CIPFA will not have anything different to add.

"There is no smoking gun. We need to admit there have been gross errors and work together, while giving direction to frontline staff," he said.

Sinn Fein's Cara McShane said the shortfall means the council is now in a dangerous zone. She said Sinn Fein has continually argued for a rates increase in line with inflation or slightly above.

She warned rate payers face a potential double-digit hike in their rates.

"It doesn't take an economist to figure out that the cost of delivering a service has increased since 2015 but our income has basically decreased. In terms of utilities, to drive a bin lorry today is going to be different than four years ago," she said.

The Sinn Fein councillor said the airshow carries a price tag of almost £300,000 a year and could be one saving.

"We have effectively given a blank cheque to some pet projects as opposed to any democratic process and that's one of the dysfunctional elements of the council," she said.

"You've the Lammas Fair that attracts 200,000 people over a four or five day period, it costs the council a fraction of the money. The time is up, the truth is out," she said.

"There are serious questions and concerns we have around the management of accounts."

Ms McShane said there is a delay in the council receiving accounts before it sets the rate for the following year - meaning they don't know what has been spent.

"How can you set a rate for the following financial year on what has been spent," she asked. "There is no doubt rates will increase due to a huge shortfall in the funding that's required.

"Ratepayers shouldn't be bailing out incompetency. We need delivery of services that are effective and efficient and ratepayers shouldn't be paying extortionate amounts of rates.

"We need to draw back from the brink and have an open and transparent process."

Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council has been asked for a response.

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