FINANCE Minister Sammy Wilson has been urged to help Larne Borough council to cope with an unexpected £250,000 shortfall in rates income.
As reported two weeks ago, power station owner AES Ballylumford has been granted a rates reduction after one of its seven generators failed and had to be rebuilt. It was out of commission for nearly five months and the company’s rates are calculated on output.
The news came as a shock to councillors, who in February struck a new district rate based on Ballylumford’s contribution before any reduction. It has emerged that a district valuer’s certificate confirming the rebate was issued prior to the council finalising its rates estimates.
Faced with the prospect of an immediate 2.5 per cent cut across all departments, the local authority’s discussions on the crisis to date have been held behind closed doors. However, minutes of a confidential session published this week show that councillors asked for a meeting with Mr Wilson, on the proposal of the East Antrim MP’s DUP colleague Cllr Gregg McKeen, seconded by independent Cllr Roy Craig. The resolution urges for an urgent meeting “to try and put as much pressure on him (Mr Wilson) as possible for assistance with this situation”.
On the proposal of Cllr Craig, seconded by the DUP Mayor, Cllr Bobby McKee, the council also resolved that chief executive Geraldine McGahey should contact Land and Property Services to “ascertain why Larne Borough Council were in such a position” and to ask about the delay between granting the Ballylumford rebate and informing the council.
Minutes record that Mrs McGahey told councillors that the capital programme - which includes the long-awaited Gobbins cliff path restoration, refurbishment of Larne Market Yard and the Glenarm regeneration masterplan - “may have to be examined” and “ways of generating income explored”.
She added that the contingency fund set aside when the rate was struck had been “well used and no longer existed”.
It was unfortunate that the council was being “penalised” retrospectively “after being frugal when striking the rate”, the chief executive added.
Ald Roy Beggs (Ulster Unionist) suggested that insurance may have to be taken out in future against potential rebates, or “some assurance from the Department of Finance that, under these circumstances, Council would not be directly impacted as electricity generation was for the whole of Northern Ireland and for export”.
l East Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan submitted a priority question at the Assembly last week, asking Minister Wilson if Larne Council is liable for the rebate.
“This is going to have a serious, serious impact on the council’s budget and ultimately on the ratepayers,” said Mr McMullan.