Mid Ulster Council has warned of a financial black hole opening up over cuts to the rates support grant for Northern Ireland’s new super councils.
Details of the financial pitfall, which has been estimated at costing the council £100,000, were revealed in a report at this week’s monthly meeting of the council about a recent multi-council delegation with the DOE Minister, Mark Durkan.
Mid Ulster Council Chairperson Linda Dillon told the minister that the cuts to the grant were entirely wrong from an equality perspective, and warned that they increased the massive wealth gap that already existed between councils, seriously impinging on any possibility of equal service provision.
In the past, the rates support grant had been a vital source of funding for the local councils due to their proven socio-economic needs.
The grant is now almost 25 per cent less than that of 2009/10 figures.
It is feared that if further cuts were to be implemented in rates support grants, Mid Ulster council would be forced to increase district rates, putting ratepayers at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to other more affluent areas of Northern Ireland.
The affected councils have also complained that without urgent clarity on the 2016/17 budgets it is increasingly difficult to make decisions enabling them to strike a rate by the February 15 deadline ‘in a timely and informed manner’.
The Mid Ulster Council report stated: “The Rate Support Grant is vital to Mid Ulster Council as it provides seven per cent of our income and any further reductions would have a negative impact on the delivery of council services. In addition to this Mid Ulster is the least wealthy of the new councils.”
Defending the cuts, Minister Durkan said there were unprecedented budgetary challenges across all the government departments, with the DOE being the most impacted in percentage terms and had therefore been left with no alternative options to cutting the grant.
He did however give a commitment to keep the situation under review during the year and announced that he had been able to recently reinstate 75 per cent of the amount cut and was hopeful that further in-year savings will enable the deficit to be further reduced.
The Minister highlighted that local government reform was about delivering better and more efficient services and that other departments also need to step up to the plate to ensure this happens.
He also acknowledged the uncertainty that councils in receipt of this grant have been facing on an annual basis, which is also evident in Central Government, and committed to doing as much as possible to give certainty.