DUNGANNON Council has been revealed as one of the most prudent councils in Northern Ireland by the chief government auditor.
Dungannon’s local authority owed £3.7m at the end of March 2011, a decrease from the previous year of £300,000, which works out at approximately £65 owed for every local resident.
The Northern Ireland council borrowing average currently stands at £248 per person, which is roughly four times the Dungannon figure.
Newtownabbey had the largest debt at £47million, while Magherafelt was the only council to be debt-free.
The financial burden carried by Dungannon residents might also drop when the local council merges with the neighbouring council areas of Cookstown and Magherafelt, which are the least debt-ridden in Northern Ireland.
Cookstown’s local authority owed only £1,500,000 at the end of March 2011, a decrease from the previous year of £100,000, which works out at approximately £41 owed for every local resident.
Throughout Northern Ireland, debt-ridden councils owe £449m, an increase of more than £9m from March 31, 2010.
The figures are contained in the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s (NIAO) annual ‘Report by the Chief Local Government Auditor.’
The report also shows that Dungannon Council had managed to reduce the amount of days lost through sickness and absenteeism over the past number of years.
In 2010/11 11 days per employee were lost at the local council, a slight reduction from the 2009/10 figures.
A period of financial upheaval could be on the cards for local councils with the proposed amalgamation to 11 new supercouncil areas next year.
Local councils are beginning to prepare rates estimates for the next financial year, from April, earlier than usual, amid fears that ‘convergence’ of the councils could push up the rates in some areas.
However, the local councils’ umbrella body has warned it will oppose plans to amalgamate local authorities unless a wider review includes the role of Stormont and restructuring of government departments.
But the Environment Minister Alex Atwood said councils must not set down “pre-conditions” or new hurdles.
“Council leaders must acknowledge that the point of no return has long passed,” said Mr Attwood.
Sean McPeake, chair of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), argued however that concerns are growing, less than 18 months before elections are due to the 11 bigger councils , which will then operate in ‘shadow’ form for a year.
The local government legislation which is to underpin the major changes has already been delayed. It is now due to be introduced in the Assembly early in the new year.
And the Executive still has to take a decision on the transfer of new powers to the re-vamped councils.
Mr McPeake said: “Many remain sceptical about the reform programme, in regard to key timetable slippages, and also due to further requests to build in large financial contingencies in our rates estimates.
“Do we even have the legal ability to borrow for all of this, let alone the capacity?’’ he asked.
“The workforce of the 26 councils simply cannot engage fully in this process until they are clear in their roles, able to budget and plan unambiguously and are treated like professional, equal partners.”
Mr Attwood said he agreed that ratepayers and taxpayers should be no worse off as a result of public service transformation.
The SDLP minister, whose environment portfolio includes local government, has had bids for additional funding rebuffed by Executive colleagues in the last year, but has submitted another for the January spending round. Mr Attwood said he had no doubt councils have the power to borrow money to finance the reforms.
“There is no doubt that councils have both the power and the capacity to do so. So let there be no new doubts about reform or council powers to borrow,’’ he said. “People need to get on with the work, ensure reform is done and done right in the interest of ratepayers.”