Minister listens to strong opposition to Council merger
Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, walks past protestors to the Fermanagh-Omagh Council merger at the Townhall.
FINANCE Minister Sammy Wilson was told in no uncertain terms that there is "no support" for the Council merger with Omagh in 2015 when he visited the County yesterday (Wednesday).
The DUP Minister spoke with business representatives in a meeting facilitated by Fermanagh Economic Development Organisation (FEDO) as well as representatives from the local Council, later at Townhall.
Earlier in the day a banner, opposing the likely rates hike as a result of the merge, was removed by Fermanagh District Council officers.
It's understood the banner "Save Fermanagh. No rates hike" was erected, just metres from FEDO's base at the Clinton Centre, as a message to Mr Wilson.
A protest was also staged at Townhall as Mr Wilson arrived to meet with Council representatives.
During the FEDO meeting, Enniskillen solicitor, James Cooper, told the Finance Minister: "I don't believe there is support for this merger in the County. Is there no technical reason why this merger could not be reviewed at an Executive level and an Assembly level? I think there's a widespread belief that Fermanagh has a strong identity and cohesion of it's own."
His comment were met with a round of applause from the floor.
Indeed, Mr Wilson heard the concerns of various business and community representatives during his time at the Clinton Centre.
But the clear opposition to the merger wasn't enough to dissuade the Finance Minister.
He took the opportunity to tell those at the meeting that the Review of Public Administration (RPA) had been designed to "give value in the long run to rate payers".
Conceding though, that there would be a differential between Omagh and Fermanagh rate payers as a result of the merge, Mr Wilson said the Executive had to discuss the finer details.
He admitted too, that he came to them yesterday with no guarantees that Fermanagh would not experience a rates increase.
"The only guarantee I can give is that the cost of bringing about RPA falls on the Councils," he told them, "I wish I could have come here today with greater certainty."
The Minister said he was surprised by comments that a review should be held.
"There is widespread support from parties in the Assembly," he said, "It surprises me that we are continually criticised for 'not getting on with the job'. If we reviewed everything that was opposed, we would never make any decision.
"I cannot think of any policy that has been put forward that there has not been some sort of lobby group saying 'it may suit everybody else but it doesn't suit us'. But at some stage we have to say 'there's advantages to this and there are reasons why people are against it', but we can't keep back pedalling."
He warned too, that the Minister tasked with responsibility of overseeing RPA, SDLP's Alex Attwood, had powers to stop Councils "wasting money" by bringing forward major capital schemes for their area.
"I reminded him of those powers when he returned from his holidays a few weeks ago. I quoted a number of examples, one of which would be of concern to Fermanagh," he said.
During his time in Fermanagh yesterday Mr Wilson met with the owners of Molloys Fish Market on Belmore Street, who are benefitting from the recently introduced discount for empty retail premises.
The family run business will benefit from a 50% discount on their rates for 12 months in their new premises.
"This relief is unique in the UK and was introduced as a result of views expressed from the local business community about the high number of empty shops in our town centres. This demonstrates the Executive's commitment to assisting our small businesses in these difficult economic times. The relief applies where the property becomes occupied in 2012/13 and has been empty for 12 months or more," said Mr Wilson.
This article appeared in Impartial Reporter 16 Aug 12