It was a marathon three hour session at The Braid on Monday night (12th February) as councillors met to discuss setting the rate for residents and businesses of Mid and East Antrim Borough for 2024/25, with one Member describing the debate as "hot and heavy".
Following leaks and controversy in recent days, there was a mixture of mostly anger, frustration, and above all, concern, amongst members of the public who already feel tired and weary from navigating the challenges of recent years - living life, feeding a family, paying the bills, and for many, running a business in the middle of a global pandemic and the ensuing cost-of-living crisis.
For local councillors, it was a challenging decision to make. Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, it was revealed at the end of 2023, is facing a financial deficit of £7.2M - not an easy shortfall to make-up. Staffing issues, legal bills, agency fees, and expensive consultants have all impacted council cash flow in recent times. And not forgetting the soaring costs for utilities and other operational expenses.
As elected representatives gathered at 6:30pm on Monday evening, public interest was high, but many felt disappointed and left 'in the dark' when the Council meeting went into closed session after only four minutes. It was obvious that whatever had to be discussed, the local authority felt it best to do so in 'secret session'.
Emerging just over three hours later from behind closed doors, it was revealed that the domestic rate was proposed at 9.78 per cent, with the non-domestic rate proposed at a whooping 11.86 per cent - understood to be the greatest increase ever made by the local authority, and set to be the highest hike this year from any council in Northern Ireland.
Following the announcement of the rate, comments from a number of councillors ensued amid jeering, accusations of "grandstanding", and questions of why more was not done to shield ratepayers from the weight of the burden of what some councillors labelled as "mismanagement" in preceding years.
Alliance Cllr Lauren Gray (Carrick Castle) began comments, saying:
"I just want to place on record our thanks to the staff throughout this process. It's been a really long process; we've been looking at this since before Christmas, but you neverunderestimate the allure of some political grandstanding, which we have seen in the previous part of our meeting tonight.
"I just want to be clear that no one is happy with this rate and we aren't happy in Alliance, but it comes on the back of a shambolic and quite frankly embarrassing few years for Mid and East Antrim. Those words have been well documented in the press. But as I made similar comments in the previous meeting, someone has to show leadership, and someone has to be the adult in the room. We aren't happy with it, but we will second it. I will second it.
"We're prepared to be financially responsible. I think it is just shameful of all those tonight who are not prepared to take that same stance, especially for the TUV, their friends in Sinn Fein, and apparently some in the Ulster Unionist Party. So we're prepared to be the adults so you can get your 15 minutes in the paper."
Sinn Fein Cllr Ian Friary (Bannside) responded saying:
"Sinn Fein look after everybody. Why we'd want to support a rate of 9.78 per cent, an increase forced on residents and businesses of Mid and East Antrim in a cost-of-living crisis. And for many years this Council has thrown ratepayers money away, and our ratepayers should not be punished for financial mismanagement unionist parties and previous officers sat and oversaw."
Former DUP Member, now Independent, Councillor David Clarke (Carrick Castle), and UUP Councillor Roy Beggs (Larne Lough) also spoke highlighting the mismanagement of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council since 2015.
Cllr Beggs also paid tribute to former councillor Stephen Nicholl who he said: "frequently highlighted the financial pressures and was laughed at by some of the controlling councillors who ran this Council since 2015. What has happened tonight has actually vindicated his concern during that entire period and it is something that should not be laughed at."
Sinn Fein Cllr Bréanainn Lyness (Ballymena) colourfully shared his thoughts beginning: "There is not a hope in hell we are supporting this rate.
"I made it clear during the rate setting process that the Council must use its reserves to take the pressure of the taxpayer. As far as I'm concerned it isn't the people's fault the Council is in debt and the brunt of this should be felt internally.
"Our Sinn Fein team have been trying to amend the deficit through optimising what we spend the council's money on, how the council makes money, and what has to be cut while protecting our frontline services.
"Unfortunately some decisions have been made which have resulted in a loss of income or overspend on certain projects. Rest assured I've been against these bad decisions throughout and have been very vocal on these issues as I was ejected by the people to serve the interests of the people. This is why we will not be supporting the Rate increase."
UUP Cllr Alan Barr (Braid) spoke convincingly of his opposition to the Rate hike saying:
"Members of Council, I could not have supported this Rate rise - this is not for political point scoring, it's because in my election campaign I promised constituents that I would restore trust in local government by not misusing taxpayers money and I am not prepared to go back on my word.
"I'm here to represent those taxpayers. I know that many of them are struggling financially therefore it would be deceitful and wrong of me to play any part in increasing that financial hardship.
"In the book of Genesis, Joseph interpreted the dream of Pharoah by advising Pharoah that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advised that a discerning and wise man be put in charge and that food should be collected in the good years and stored for use during the famine. Pharoah took that advice and placed Joseph in charge of the operation. Lo and behold, famine did strike Egypt and due to the preparation of Joseph, Egypt was spared the effects of the famine.
"I believe that over the past few years the wisdom of Joseph was not followed within Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Issues around not claiming VAT, dependency on agency workers, direct award contracts and procurement certainly did not prepare this Council for harder times. We are now facing these harder times and some are expecting the ratepayer to pay for it. I say unreasonable and unfair.
"To reduce the burden on the taxpayer I believe the areas we must look at in the next year are improving procurement and increasing joint-procurement and other functions with other councils; reviewing staff sickness to counter overtime and agency staff; reviewing the hosting of awards ceremonies by council; reviewing and reducing what we actually spend on advertising literature.
"Perhaps of these areas would have been reviewed more carefully, I would not be campaigning for the maintenance of the local play park, I would not be hearing about the football training being cancelled at the Showgrounds, and whenever a ratepayer calls Council for frontline requests, they are not passed from pillar to post without getting an answer.
"In conclusion, until I am satisfied that ratepayers money is being used more efficiently and to put the ratepayer first, I cannot and will not support such a hike in rates going forward."
The Rate hike was proposed by DUP Cllr William McCaughey (Braid), and second by Alliance Cllr Lauren Gray (Carrick Castle).
RECORD OF VOTE
Cllr Lauren Gray (Alliance, Carrick Castle)
Cllr Gregg McKeen (DUP, Larne Lough)
Cllr Bobby Hadden (Independent, Knockagh)
Cllr Lawrie Philpott (DUP, Ballymena)
Cllr Paul Reid (DUP, Larne Lough)
Cllr William McCaughey (DUP, Braid)
Cllr Angela Smyth (DUP, Coast Road)
Cllr Robin Stewart (UUP, Carrick Castle)
Cllr Aaron Skinner (Alliance, Knockagh)
Cllr Maeve Donnelly (Alliance, Larne Lough)
Cllr Jack Gibson (Alliance, Ballymena)
Cllr Robert Logan (Alliance, Larne Lough)
Cllr Chelsea Harwood (Alliance, Braid)
Cllr Reuben Glover (DUP, Ballymena)
Cllr Marc Collins (DUP, Kockagh)
Cllr Tyler Hoey (DUP, Bannside)
Cllr Andrew Clarke (DUP, Coast Road)
Cllr Beth Adger (DUP, Braid)
Ald Thomas Gordon (DUP, Bannside)
Cllr Maureen Morrow (UUP, Coast Road)
Cllr Matthew Armstong (TUV, Ballymena)
Cllr Ian Friary (Sinn Fein, Bankside)
Cllr David Clarke (Independent, Carrick Castle)
Cllr Matthew Warwick (TUV, Braid)
Cllr Timothy Gaston (TUV, Bannside)
Cllr Christopher Jamieson (TUV, Braid)
Cllr Bethany Ferris (UUP, Carrick Castle)
Cllr Andrew Wilson (UUP, Knockagh)
Cllr Bréanainn Lyness (Sinn Fein, Ballymena)
Cllr James McKeown (Sinn Fein, Coast Road)
Cllr Colin Crawford (UUP, Ballymena)
Cllr Alan Barr (UUP, Braid)
Cllr Jackson Minford (UUP, Bannside)
Ald Stewart McDonald (TUV, Bannside)
Cllr Roy Beggs (UUP, Larne Lough)
NOT PRESENT TO VOTE (5)
Cllr Rodney Quigley (Independent, Ballymena)
Cllr Archie Rae (Sinn Fein, Braid)
Cllr Billy Ashe (DUP, Carrick Castle)
Ald Gerardine Mulvenna (Alliance, Coast Road)
Cllr Peter Johnston (DUP, Knockagh)