ARDS and North Down has an almost £10m hole in its finances.
That’s because a total of £9.77m went uncollected from rates bills in this area last year.
Multi million-pound sums were missing from both household and business rates pots during the 2022/23 financial year – the most recent period on record.
It’s the equivalent of one in eight local businesses dodging their rates bills, and one in 40 homes not paying their property taxes.
The people in charge of rates have blamed the impact of Covid for the problem, stating that they’re still struggling to catch up on accrued debts as pandemic restrictions meant they weren’t able to issue court proceedings for non-payment.
Rates are collected by the Department of Finance, with cash from this area shared between Ards and North Down Council and Stormont.
Both arms of local government have had to make massive budget cuts this year, often axing planned work to save tens of thousands of pounds.
But with almost £10m going uncollected, one leading local councillor now argues that the authorities need to crack down on unpaid rates and get the missing money into the coffers.
The problem isn’t unique to Ards and North Down, with large amounts of unpaid rates cash an issue in every single council.
And across Northern Ireland as a whole, last year there was a hole in the rates pot of just under £148m.
Locally, that included £6.73m in unpaid household taxes, plus £3.04m missing from business rates.
Local alderman Mark Brooks now questions what the Department of Finance is doing to get the money, arguing that the respective shares of the missing cash owed to both the council and Stormont would go a long way to easing financial pressures.
“As a councillor, we set the rate every year and work within a budget,” he said.
“Innocently, I have never asked about non-payment; therefore, I was shocked and concerned to read the figures for Ards and North Down – close to £10m, including businesses.
“Stormont and council budgets are being cut, yet millions are missing. How long has this been going on? What is being done to collect this money?”
Mr Brooks also points out that councillors are currently in the early stages of working out next year’s budget.
“Having this much outstanding certainly brings things into perspective,” he added. “This figure of around £10m potentially lost is huge.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Finance blamed the Covid pandemic for the problem, stating that the normal system of issuing legal proceedings to people who ignore final demands for rates couldn’t be followed.
“The legal process was not available due to restrictions in court operations [that were imposed] to manage the spread of the virus,” she said. “As a result, the level of unpaid debt has increased.
“Legal recovery processes have restarted this year, and [rates collectors in the department’s] Land and Property Services have issued several thousand court summonses.
“The impact of the pandemic and inflation have created financial difficulties for many ratepayers. Land and Property Services is willing to discuss affordable payment arrangements with ratepayers in financial difficulties.
“A significant proportion of the rates not collected is subject to a payment arrangement and is scheduled to be collected at a later date.”