Local ratepayers will fund what the Chief Executive of Derry City and Strabane District Council, John Kelpie, and almost all councillors welcomed as an ambitious investment programme through a district rate hike of 2.76 per cent, newly struck by the council on Wednesday.
That’s an average of an £11.74 a year increase for ratepayers, coupled with an expected 1.8 per cent hike in the regional rate, which will add another £7.12 to annual rates bills.
Thirty councillors, including all the major parties, backed the rate increase. But independents Gary Donnelly, Warren Robinson, Darren O’Reilly and Paul Gallagher voted against the increase. There were two abstentions.
Welcoming the striking of the rate, Mr. Kelpie said: “Council will build on last year’s growth, which saw our domestic and non-domestic rates base grow for the first time in many years, compared to an overall average reduction across other Council areas in Northern Ireland.”
The city’s accountant Alfie Dallas outlined how coming to the end of the relatively new authority’s second financial year £2.045m in efficiency savings had been realised.
He explained how the city and district’s domestic and non-domestic rate bases have grown, with the latter up by 0.94 per cent compared with an average decline across the North.
Mr. Dallas added that 1.53 per cent of the 2.76 per cent rate increase related to major capital investment projects, like the Brandywell and Brooke Park.
Thirty five million pounds have already been spent on schemes like these, since the council’s establishment, with another £40.77m of projects in progress and fully funded, he said.
“We have scoped further capital aspirations of over £200m and this new rates investment will provide initial investment of £30m plus funding leverage towards these and will see progression of our major leisure ambitious in Derry and Strabane, enable us to progress with significant EU funding applications, continue with our extensive programme of parks and greenway development, provide funding to progress with refurbishment of our community centres, and develop our major town centre regeneration aspirations,” said Mr. Dallas.
A further 0.55 per cent of the increase for 2017/18 was accounted for by Derry and Strabane’s festival programme.
The rate hike will provide a new annual major events fund of £250,000 for major parties like Hallowe’en and the Foyle Maritime Festival
An additional 0.18 per cent will provide funding for extra grant aid monies to allow community organisations deliver vital projects and services.
And the remaining 0.49 per cent will allow the council to respond to areas of significant need and improve frontline services.
Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Fleming pledged his party’s support for the proposed rates increase.
He said: “It is set out very clearly in Alfie and the Chief Executive’s report that this council has always had an ambition to grow and invest in terms of our economic growth and development and the services we provide.”
SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly also welcomed the rate increase.
He said Mr. Kelpie and Mr. Dallas’ reports had outlined in “detail that right across the length and breadth of the city and district we will be able to improve services for the people of the council area.”
He added: “It represents a balance between providing these services and not putting a burden on ratepayers.”
Alderman Drew Thompson, from the fiscally conservative DUP, also said he thought the rate struck a good balance.
“We, as a party, strive to get the lowest rates we possibly can for local ratepayers,” he said.
But he added: “It think we have come up with a rate that is reasonable and will allow us to invest and provide services for the city and district going forward.”
However, dissenting voices were raised by several of the independent members who once again raised concerns about the ongoing subvention to City of Derry Airport.
Councillor Paul Gallagher said the proposals were “not an acceptable deal for the ratepayer” and that a £2m subvention for Eglinton showed that the council continued to “throw money at an unsustainable airport”.
“It is time for Stormont to take it off the hands of the ratepayer,” he added, describing the facility as “little more than a vanity project”.
Councillor Warren Robinson echoed this arguing the airport subvention was diverting money away from community services.
But airport supporters from Sinn Féin and the SDLP pointed out how Eglinton represented a net gain of £15m per year as an economic driver.
Sinn Féin Councillor Eric McGinley said it was “bizarre, ludicrous and even idiotic” to be focusing on one aspect of an extensive council investment and services programme.
“There are fifty elements but if you followed the logic of some councillors, you would grind to a halt.”
Councillor McGinley quoted from Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ and accused naysayers of choosing cuts and closures as opposed to choosing growth and investment, which was what, he said, the rate increase represented.
But Councillor Gary Donnelly insisted that the airport continued to act as an albatross around the local authority’s neck.
He said there had been no meaningful effort to deal with the airport, which, he said, was unsustainable, while local businesses were being hit by rate increases.
“The city centre is quickly filling up with gambling arcades, charity shops and pound shops,” he said, while council continued to subsidise, “an airport with one flight a day”.
Sinn Féin Councillor Elisha McCallion reacted incredulously to suggestions money was being diverted from local services.
“I had to blink,” she said. “I thought I was dreaming and I was in the White House briefing room listening to fake news, listening to the contributions from some councillors.”
She said investments in community services around the city were dependent on the rate increase being agreed.
“The people of Galliagh will get a new community centre,” she said. “In striking a rate we are pouring money into these areas to make sure that they get it.”
She also claimed that there would be an announcement of a new community intervention service, partly supported by council, in the near future.
“Within weeks we’ll also see the establishment of a community intervention service, supported by these rates increases,” she said, adding: “In voting against the rates, you’re voting against that.”
SDLP Councillor John Boyle followed up with a movie reference of his own, complaining those voting against the rates were living in ‘La La Land’.
He said: “In reference to the airport our infrastructure is not sufficient at present to attract inward investment and create growth and jobs.”
His party colleague Gus Hastings said subventions were part and parcel of the council’s remit and that they applied to sports centres and cemeteries as well as to the airport.
“I’ve been listening to this for the last three years,” he said. “We should put a sign up saying ‘closed for business’ if we were to listening to Councillor Gallagher.”
Councillor Gallagher, however, again claimed that the airport was draining 10 per cent of the total council expenditure and complained that this money would be better spent elsewhere.