‘So what?’... UUP man’s view on council awards bill sparks row
A councillor has been branded flippant after he responded to criticism of his local authority's six-figure outlay on awards ceremonies by saying: "So what?"
Calls have been made for greater scrutiny of spending after it was revealed Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council splashed out more than £162,000 on the events.
Another councillor referred to complaints about the cost as "just another gripe before an election".
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon was the second highest spending council in the UK.
It spent twice as much on awards ceremonies as Belfast City Council (£74,848).
Only Derbyshire County Council spent more than Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, at £218,483.
Pressure group The TaxPayers' Alliance had asked all UK councils how much they spent on awards ceremonies from 2015-18. The average cost was £18,064.
Council's here spent over £600,000.
Arnold Hatch, an Ulster Unionist councillor in Portadown, faced a backlash yesterday after shrugging off criticism on Radio Ulster's Nolan show.
He said the amount was "minimal" in terms of overall council spend and added: "Yeah, so what?
"I mean, these are events that are well recognised. In the local media, the local Press, I didn't see any negative comments about those awards ceremonies."
Harry Fone of the TaxPayers' Alliance said: "I was shocked by councillor Hatch's comments. His attitude towards ratepayers and the electorate is disgraceful.
"People want their taxes to be spent wisely, not splashed around by reckless bureaucrats and politicians."
Fellow Portadown councillor Darryn Causby of the DUP described the remarks as "flippant" and said greater scrutiny was needed.
"I certainly wouldn't be as flippant, as that about the resources we have," he said.
"We need to ensure we're getting the best value for all of our ratepayers.
"In my opinion, a comment like that was bad judgment. When we're doing these events we need to make sure we're getting best value and the ratepayers are protected.
"When it comes to ratepayers' money it's not about: 'So what?'. It's about: 'So what can we do to ensure the best value for the rate payer?'.
"The £162,000 figure is very high, it shocked me when I saw it, and I need to get to the bottom of it to see what the position actually is after sponsorship and ticket sales."
Yesterday one resident commented on Twitter that the amount of individuals living in poverty in the Arnagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council area was "stark".
"Absolutely disgusting that this amount has been spent on ceremonies. Hope the Council doesn't forget they work for their constituents," they added.
SDLP councillor Sharon Haughey-Grimley said: "It's important for council to recognise citizens and businesses in our borough who have achieved highly, which should always be done in a cost-effective manner.
"It is my understanding the published figures do not reflect the income generated from these events in terms of sponsorship.
"I have asked council officials for a full report on this matter to ensure full transparency."
Independent councillor Carol Black, who is stepping down in May, defended awards ceremonies.
She said: "That figure does sound awful for ratepayers trying to make a living, but there is a genuine need for a good part of it.
"Do people not want functions any more, such as giving Rory McIlroy the Freedom of the Borough? Because of the Stormont collapse, I think people have lost the will to support anything to do with public money.
"Councillors are going to get it in the neck now during the elections.
"I feel this is just another gripe before an election."
She added: "I think there are many good things (about the awards ceremonies), like entertaining our senior citizens, recognising sports and good deeds throughout the borough.
"That is the rates going back into the community. But if you think you can do it better, stand to get elected in May. That's why I'm handing it over to the young ones. There's always a need to scrutinise these things, but I don't think there actually is much of an overspend."
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council events included the Community Awards, annual Senior Sports Awards, annual Junior Sports Awards, Food Heartland Awards and the Borough Business Awards.
"These events are organised to recognise and champion local success and community achievement, and are exceptionally well-supported by attendees and sponsors," it said.
"The figures quoted represent the total cost of these events before deducting income from ticket sales or private sector sponsorship."