Ratepayers left picking up bar tab

BANBRIDGE district ratepayers are footing the bill for lavish council dinner-and-drinks functions for staff, it has been claimed.

Last Christmas alone, Banbridge District Council treated just under 200 employees to a meal during working hours costing £2,913, although this figure is significantly increased when four hours’ salary of each employee - paid to attend the free function - is factored into the total.

Ratepayer Paul McCrumlish, a former civil servant of some 30 years, uncovered the figures in a Freedom of Information request after a guest at the function told him he was going to a “free, slap-up meal” at ratepayers’ expense.

“The first time I became aware of this was two Christmases ago, but I thought it was a ‘one-off’ and so let the matter sit,” he says. “Then, this Christmas past, I heard again that almost 200 employees were taken for a meal during working hours, the full cost of the luncheon and daily pay of each employee borne by the ratepayers of Banbridge.

“As you can imagine, in the present economic climate I thought this was a blatant misuse of council funds and apparently this is not the only function paid for by us, the ratepayers, each year.”

Mr McCrumlish - who pointed out that during his 30 years as a civil servant he always paid for Christmas functions and was made to take time off to attend them - said he had contacted Jo-Anne Dobson MLA over the matter and had also received a response from Mr Pat Cumiskey, director of Corporate Services with Banbridge District Council.

In correspondence seen by the Leader, Mr Cumiskey states the Belmont function is an annual event and combines as a “lunch, corporate training and civic awards ceremony”.

He also pointed out that the most recent event raised £1,300 from staff towards a local charity.

However, Mr McCrumlish remained unimpressed and labelled the spending “disgraceful” in light of the fact business and domestic ratepayers are currently struggling to pay their bills.

“This is not ‘Bah Hum Bug’ on my part,” he added. “I am not saying council employees don’t deserve to enjoy a Christmas dinner celebration like the rest of us - but not with our money.

“Also, according to my calculations, 200 employees on a basic wage of £6.25 per hour, each attending the function for four hours, brings the total spend up to a grand total of £7,950.

“This is disgraceful when you think how many home owners are feeling the financial strain and many businesses are having to close due to the cost of rates imposed upon them.

“I hope Banbridge Council takes a long hard look at the figures - which includes a total of £476 paid for wine and orange juice - and decides not to repeat this disgraceful behaviour in the years to come.”

In response, Banbridge District Council defended holding the function, describing the event as a just reward for staff who have gone the extra mile for ratepayers.

“In an organisation the size of Banbridge District Council it is very difficult to arrange a corporate training/information day that most employees can attend with minimum disruption to services provided to the public.

CONTINUED ON PAGE THREE

Experience would suggest that the afternoon prior to the Christmas break is an excellent opportunity to combine an important corporate event with a celebration of the years’ work,” a spokesperson said.

“The half day event held in the Belmont Hotel in December 2012 was attended by approximately 200 staff, it cost the Council £2427.92 net of VAT, which is reclaimable, and raised £1300 contributions from staff for local charities.

“The programme for the event included a screened presentation of the organisations Corporate goals and objectives, an outline of achievements and accredited regional and national awards obtained by the Council during the year, together with individual awards to employees who have gone ‘the extra mile’ on behalf of rate payers and service users.

“In previous years similar type events were held in Banbridge Leisure Centre but the costs of providing a meal involved were similar and we could not replicate the professional skill or ambience available at the Belmont Hotel.

“The Council believe this event provides a very important opportunity to review the work of the organisation and to recognise staff achievements. In doing so it has a direct benefit on staff moral and is a modest investment in the continued good performance of the organisation.”