Larne Borough Council: Audit report raises 31 concerns

Larne Borough Council's internal report raised a number of concerns

Concerns about the use of a council-owned credit card, the awarding of contracts and uncollected rent have been raised at Larne Borough Council.

A total of 31 concerns have been identified in an internal report produced for the County Antrim council.

The report's authors said they discovered "an unusually high number of significant issues" during their audit.

One councillor, Brian Dunn, threatened to resign because he is so disappointed with the council's performance.

The report revealed the council spent £20,000 fitting out a cafe inside Larne Leisure Centre.

But according to the auditors, two years after the cafe opened, no formal legal agreement had been signed between the proprietor and the council.

The cafe's rent bill, totalling about £16,000, had not been asked for.

When this was highlighted, the council said it would issue invoices for back rent.

Cases of wine

The auditors also reported that 10 years after a legacy fund was set up to help young people in the borough, the money remains unspent by the council.

The unspent fund, set up by the owners of the old Fort James company, is now worth £90,000.

The authors have also raised concerns about the use of the council's credit card.

When the town hall was officially reopened after a refurbishment, more than £700 was spent on six cases of wine for a celebration.

However, questions were asked because the auditors could find "no supporting information for the expenditure", and described this spending as "possibly irregular".

The council said the wine had been bought "as a matter of urgency" for a function.

Councillor Brian Dunn, from the Northern Ireland Conservative Party, said: "I am concerned that the governance issues and the procedures within council are not robust enough to stand scrutiny.

"I think things aren't being done properly. I have brought these issues up.

"They have not been addressed properly, and if that is the case, I think I don't want to be a member of that organisation for any longer, and I am considering resigning from the council."

Shortcomings

When the report's authors examined the council's procurement, they found that the local authority did not always follow best practice.

The report was prepared by the Northern Ireland Audit Office for the council's audit committee.

Larne Borough Council has accepted the majority of the shortcomings in the report.

Committee chairman Martin Wilson, from the SDLP, said: "In terms of an audit report, the fewer issues there are, the better. But it is not unusual for councils in Northern Ireland or elsewhere to have a number of recommendations from the audit office.

"The thing is, what you do to implement procedures and policies that are needed to take care of the issues."

'Unfair inference'

The report also highlighted overpayments made to the mayor and deputy mayor, but these were cancelled out by underpayments made to other councillors.

The error continued after clarification on how "special responsibility allowances" should be paid was provided by the former Environment Minister Alex Attwood.

The Ulster Unionist local government spokesperson Tom Elliott said the full report into Larne, and others carried out into other councils, should be made public.

"I think it is important that the ratepayer in each council should actually see those reports and make an assessment for themselves as to how well a council is doing," the UUP MLA said.

Councillor Martin Wilson, who chairs Larne Borough Council's audit committee, said he wanted to "make clear that the Audit Office document, which has been referred to by the BBC, is an advisory document provided to councils across Northern Ireland following routine monitoring by the NI Audit Office."

'Totally reasonable'

"As with all 26 councils, there are always opportunities to improve and correct any flaws in our systems as a result of these reports" Mr Wilson said.

"I am concerned that there should be any unfair inference drawn from the reporting that anything inappropriate has occurred with regard to our management of public funds.

"The queries raised have been addressed and totally reasonable explanations provided. Larne is the only council to be placed under this scrutiny and has responded openly and transparently to media interest this document has generated," Mr Wilson added.

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