Overtime cut in bid for four per cent rates rise

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Larne councillors have sanctioned an “embargo” on staff overtime as they get to grips with rates estimates for the year ahead.

It is the last time Larne Borough Council will strike the district rate before reorganisation and the initial indications were that capital commitments like the Gobbins cliff path, along with a hike in pension contributions, would require an increase in the region of 10.6 per cent.

The local authority’s rates committee vetoed any such rise and has instructed officers to review budgets and come up with proposals that would enable the council to strike an increase of not more than four per cent without impacting on services. Last year, a 4.5 per cent rise was mooted, but several rounds of hard bargaining brought it down to 2.86 per cent.

It is likely, in advance of reorganisation, that the council will seek a number of voluntary redundancies.

At one point in a rates committee meeting, Cllr Gregg McKeen proposed and Cllr Roy Craig seconded a proposal that line managers be instructed that all overtime required prior approval. The Larne Times understands that the larger policy and resources committee has adopted the motion, which will go to the full council for ratification in February.

The general grant from Government has increased by only 1.7 per cent and the Land and Property Service’s contribution by 1.34 per cent – both less than half the average 3.13 per cent inflation rate in 2013 – placing councillors between a rock and a hard place.

The biggest single upward pressure on the rates may be a £405,000 contribution (equivalent to a 10 per cent increase in the budget) to help fund a statutory transition committee and shadow council which will precede formation of the new Mid and East Antrim Council in 2016.

Members heard that Larne ratepayers may face a more shocking rate rise next year, as Larne has a lower rate than either of its partners in Ballymena and Carrickfergus. It was suggested that an incremental increase now might “help close the gap in the level of increase in 2015”.

In the meantime, reports will be sought on the other two councils’ rates proposals for 2014-15.

As it seeks to identify where costs can be cut, or capital schemes deferred, the rates committee must also take account of a 17.6 per cent increase in the council’s interest and loan repayments and escalating landfill waste costs.

With Ald Jack McKee pressing for the inclusion of only “essential” items in next year’s rates, chief executive Geraldine McGahey urged members to consider the assets to be left for the community after 2015, as opposed to a wish list which could be considered by the new council.

Cllr McKeen said a 10.6 per cent rate rise “would not be acceptable” and asked Mrs McGahey where savings might be achieved without cutting services to ratepayers. The chief executive replied that it should come from salaries and wages, supplies and services, adding that overtime “must be addressed such that it was planned, rather than responsive”.

In response to rates committee chairman Ald Roy Beggs, Mrs McGahey said that a few years ago overtime had been “embargoed” subject to her approval, and “it may have to revert to this”.

The minutes state: “Members requested that officers endeavour to bring back an increase close to the rate of inflation and no more than four per cent, taking cognisance that ratepayers would endure a larger rates increase the following year due to amalgamation without receiving any benefit.”