Leisure centres at heart of rates row among councillors

Banbridge District’s loss-making leisure centres were at the heart of a rates row among councillors as the DUP tried unsuccessfully to shave another 0.7% off this year’s increase.

With concensus among the other parties, the district rate was struck at 1.7%, an improvement (made possible by an unexpected £30,000 windfall from Stormont )- on the 2% originally proposed.

The DUP, however, with Councillor Jim McElroy leading the charge, claimed to have identified potential additional savings of £90,000 across the board , savings which would facilitate striking a rate of just 1%, they said.

Seizing on the example of the leisure centres, Mr McElroy pointed out that, according to estimates, they were facing losses totalling almost £1.5m in 2014/15.

Figures show Banbridge Leisure Centre looking at a potential loss of £867,003; Rathfriland Community Centre and new pitch, £135,310; Gilford Community Centre, £123,264 and Dromore Community Centre and Holm Park, £214,916. The provisional estimate of £158,013 outlay on leisure services support brought the total to £1,498,506.

Suggesting there was room to reduce spending on leisure, among other things, Mr McElroy pointed out that while only a fraction of district residents used the leisure facilities, all ratepayers had to bear the costs.

“We were just trying to lessen the rates burden, given the recession and the state of the country, but they wouldn’t come down one inch,” he said, denying suggestions that he and his party colleagues were in any way “against the leisure centres” or engaged in electioneering.

“I’m not even standing at the next election,” he added.

Only the DUP councillors present voted for Mr McElroy’s proposed 1% rates rise.

The Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance contingents backed Councillor Joan Baird’s proposal of 1.7%, which councillors variously hailed as fair, reasonable, below inflation and the lowest among the three councils soon to comprise the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon ‘supercouncil’, not to mention far short of the 5.2% initially suggested.

Mr McElroy said the UUP’s Councillor John Hanna, among others, strongly opposed any reduction in spending on leisure centres, which, as Mrs Baird pointed out, always operated at a loss.