Ballymoney could be set for 'scary' rate hikes

BALLYMONEY residents have been warned to brace themselves for "scary" increases in their rates over the next two to three years.

The chilling warning was made by the town's new Mayor Bill Kennedy who said the failure of Stormont ministers to agree on the restructuring of local government could lead to spiralling rates in the borough.

The Independent councillor was appointed Mayor last Tuesday evening breaking the DUP's grip on the chair for the first time in ten years.

And he was brutally frank about the challenges ahead of the council when he spoke to the Times on Thursday afternoon.

Mr Kennedy - who was Mayor a decade ago - said among the biggest on the horizon was limiting the damage of expected hikes in domestic rates over the next two to three years combined with cut backs to local services.

He said the failure of Stormont to facilitate the restructuring of local government could hit local ratepayers hard should general grants from government be cut.

Should that happen, the financial burden on the local council to deliver services could lead to ratepayers' pockets taking a hammering.

Mr Kennedy admitted it would be a challenge but said it was one he was prepared to tackle head on.

"The council needs strong, clear and decisive leadership and I think that's what I bring to the table," he said.

"The Assembly should have been working, doing their end of the deal. It seems to me they did very little.

"I would out the blame firmly on the Assembly. There were savings to be made.

"With a change to bigger councils there could have been a reduction in rates.

"Waste management is going to cost more and more so there will have to be increases in rates to cover that.

"I can't see there being a reduction in rates - if anything rates could be scary.

"The Treasury in England will be passing down to the Assembly to make cuts and then down the line to the district councils and it will be the ordinary ratepayers paying the bill at the end of the day."

Mr Kennedy said he feared the financial situation locally would worsen before it gets better.

He said: "This started more than two years back and there is only one factory left in Ballymoney.

"Look back to when we had places such as the Agivey, Tyco, O'Kane's, Ballymoney Foods and British Textiles. Now it is just Maine.

"It took a bit of time for the financial hardship to hit really hard, when people's additional surplus spend wasn't there anymore.

"Ballymoney is often over-looked by multi-nationals for Coleraine and Ballymena.

"I don't think we have seen the worst of it yet. That is part of the challenge ahead of us and for many rural towns and villages getting squeezed by multi-nationals."

Asked if he ever thought another factory would open in Ballymoney in the foreseeable future, he replied:

"I don't think so, certainly not in my lifetime.

"Why come to anywhere in Ireland of the UK if you can get it elsewhere cheaper?

"That doesn't mean to say we are going to lie down.

"We just have to look to other initiatives and try and creative a living for people."

Mr Kennedy also pointed to the dire situation in both the construction and agriculture industries.

"The one thing we have in Ballymoney is a higher than average level of self-employment.

"There is a great work ethic in Ballymoney not to give up or lie down.

"It is up to us to encourage people and encourage central government to release money to help businesses and help people into work."

Mr Kennedy said he believed the answer to Ballymoney's woes was not to "throw money" at futile attempts to encourage factories to the town but instead focus on giving a helping hand to small businesses and helping to create and boost such ventures.

"There will always be money there, it is how that money is spent," he said.

"We have to encourage people in business to take chances, to work for themselves."

Mr Kennedy also spoke of the need to secure funding for local schools.

"The standard of education in the area is very good.

"There are a lot of young people who are going on to second and third level education.

"We have to try to cater for them. We have to try and keep young people in Northern Ireland and in particular this area."

He added: "A lot of our schools were created in the 1960's and 70's and the whole layout of schools is different from what it was 40 years ago."

Mr Kennedy - a unionist and former member of the DUP - said his door was open to all parties as the council prepared itself for the choppy waters ahead.

"I've always been open minded to all the parties. I was at one stage with the DUP," he said.

"The DUP for me sat far, far too long (as Mayor).

"Whether they like it or not other people were elected by the people.

"I think it had become stale, very little was happening. I will certainly work with all the parties and it is time for the parties to work together.

"Everybody has something to bring to the table and I think I can take the best out of that.

"I am very, very aware of the tremendous challenges facing this council as well as other areas."

And he also spoke of his surprise at being named as a candidate for Mayor just days before the vote was taken.

"I thought if I got my act together I would get enough support and that was the case," he said.

"But it was totally unexpected. If a week ago someone had said I would get the Mayor of Ballymoney I would have laughed at them.

"As an Independent I had to get someone to propose me and someone to second it."

And that was how it turned out with Tom McKeown putting him forward and Audrey Patterson seconding.

"The DUP nominated their runner who was Evelyn Robinson and when it went to the vote I obviously had the majority," he said.

"I very much thank the other parties in the council for their support and I am very confident I can do the job.

"I have experience as Mayor in the past and 20 years experience as a councillor as well as being involved with outside bodies.

"I am delighted to be first citizen."

Mr Kennedy said his vast experience as a councillor combined with a successful career as a businessman would put him in a good position to help Ballymoney overcome the hurdles it undoubtedly faces in the near future.

"I'm in the position where I can see it from both sides," he said.

"I have got to see how prudent you can get to be and also see families on the breadline with no extra disposable income. There are a lot of families in the area with no work."