Mid and East Antrim Borough Council asked to  ‘justify the huge increase in rates’ in first public Q&A session

Twenty-three queries were received from members of the public for the first question and answer session to be held by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.
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At last week’s meeting, councillors were told that four were rejected in accordance with criteria: one was not within council remit, one was deemed to be “frivolous”, one was submitted without the required name and address and one had more than a limit of 100 words.

Mid and East Antrim Mayor Alderman Gerardine Mulvenna said any unanswered question during the 15 minute slot would be provided with a written response and published on the council website within five working days.

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She described the new initiative as “a magnificent opportunity to help the public engage better with democracy”. The mayor indicated “several” queries were about rate-setting.

Carnfunnock Country Park. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting ServiceCarnfunnock Country Park. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting Service
Carnfunnock Country Park. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting Service

The council was asked to “justify the huge increase in rates”, what improvements could be expected and why the increase had been one of the highest in the UK. The local authority was asked if it would be spent “to good effect” and what “extras” residents could expect.

The council was also asked if it considered such a rise to be “acceptable” in a cost of living crisis, how it will benefit people and the reason for “such a huge increase”.

In response to the rates queries, interim chief executive Valerie Watts said Mid and East Antrim Borough Council had agreed an increase of 9.78 per cent for the domestic rate for 2024/25, which she described, “in cash terms” as an average weekly increase of £1.39 or £72.03 annually. She noted the council’s rate amounts to just under 50 per cent of bills received with the remainder set by Stormont.

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Absorbed Internally

She went on to say MEABC has “traditionally” set a lower rate than other councils in Northern Ireland and often below the rate of inflation which has meant the cost has been “absorbed internally and not passed on to the ratepayer”.

“However there were a number of very difficult circumstances which faced MEABC this financial year,” she stated. “Locally these included, firstly, in early February 2024, council was informed that the rateable income from the borough’s largest ratepayer, namely Kilroot Energy Park, would be temporarily reduced by approximately £1.7m.

“Additionally, projected council service running costs of almost £12.2m over the next year due to soaring energy bills, rising staff costs, increased waste management fees and vehicle provision and maintenance commitments.

“Also next year’s budget also includes vital ‘invest to save’ measures which will require initial outlay before delivering significant savings as part of the ongoing transformation of MEABC. These include changes to staffing structures and investment in services to boost efficiency and value for money within council.

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“To mitigate the impact on ratepayers, council has also committed to delivering a savings target of £6.85m in the next financial year to meet the agreed budget which was set with all spend of public money subject to enhanced and more robust scrutiny, accountability and transparency measures.

The interim chief executive insisted council “continues to provide value for ratepayers” and deliver regeneration and infrastructure projects to include £80m investment throughout Mid and East Antrim from Belfast Region City Deal; £7m investment at Carnfunnock Country Park, outside Larne, in conjunction with the UK Levelling Up Fund; £8m investment in ECOS in Ballymena; the purchase of new energy efficient waste vehicles for council and delivery of play park improvements, including a “flagship” facility at Marine Gardens in Carrickfergus and roll-out of synthetic sports pitches.

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