Inset: MEA Council’s interim chief executive Valerie Watts
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s interim chief executive Valerie Watts has confirmed the local authority has a financial deficit of £7.2m.
In a statement to councillors on the local authority’s financial position at a meeting of the borough council at The Braid, in Ballymena, on Monday evening, the interim chief executive said that she had requested to do so in the public part of the meeting “to keep members abreast of developments and to keep the public informed of the progress that we are making in this issue of our finances”.
“As members are aware, I reported to you at that special meeting held on 11th September, the in-year financial deficit of approximately some £7m, and clearly as a council, we need to address that in order that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council meets its statutory obligations to achieving financial break-even at financial year end on 31st March this year.
“I stress again that is a statutory obligation on us as council. So just to remind you that we are facing a significant number of legacy challenges as well as challenges that were identified in phase one of the PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) support work.
“In response to budgetary challenges, it was clear that Mid and East Antrim required immediate support to stabilise our finance and procurement functions whilst improving existing processes and policies and designing new operating models, finance and procurement functions.
“The findings have been translated into clear next steps which will enable us as a council to restore grip on control in the short term whilst developing and embedding a sustainable approach for the future.
“In terms of what has actually been addressed to date – so in relation to the council facing significant and growing budgetary pressures, we have begun to address this by developing a forecast expenditure for the financial year 2023/24 based on existing committed spend by looking at patterns of spend in the last couple of years and basing our forecast expenditure with what we know will also potentially be growth items in next year’s budget, so that is to help us kick off the rates-setting procedure with the most up-to-date financial information we can possibly have.
“In doing that, this has identified a budget gap of approximately £7.2m which again has been used to inform our next steps.
“In the short-term, this will enable Mid and East Antrim to restore a grip and control over its finances and spending and in the longer term, this will put Mid and East Antrim into a sustainable position through the transformation of council services.”
A review of council assets was on the agenda behind closed doors at Monday’s meeting with the spotlight on Smiley Buildings in Larne and Ardeevin in Ballymena.
The interim chief executive also stated the council’s procurement systems were “not standardised and not always documented”.
She said that “standardised processes will be implemented” meaning that Mid and East Antrim will have “robust processes in place with clear controls for all members of staff and all spending via procurement will follow clear strategies and approvals”.
Last week, former Larne mayors Andy Wilson, a former Ulster Unionist councillor and Roy Craig, a former Independent, met the interim chief executive and mayor Alderman Gerardine Mulvenna, a Coast Road Alliance councillor, to discuss the introduction of car parking charges at two of the last remaining free car parks in Larne town centre and to ask the council to publicly explain why the local authority has a £7m shortfall in its finances.
In a statement, they said:
“We made the points that the introduction of town centre car parking charges was done in an undemocratic manner and the now empty carparks proved it was not going to be the revenue-raising scheme that they had envisaged.
“Wider than that, we said that the public needs to be told why the council has got into such financial dire straits that they need to raise service charges left, right and centre.
“I welcome the fact that the interim chief executive has now made a public statement at the full council about the financial position and has spelt out that they have an in-year deficit of £7m.
“However, what is missing is a full explanation of how this situation was allowed to arise.”
Mr Craig was mayor from 2004 until 2005 and Mr Wilson, from 2010 until 2011.