6 °CFri, 14

Christmas funding row follows reps to the United States

GLOBE-trotting civic leaders have been catching some welcome winter sun this week as yet another council delegation jetted off on a ‘trade mission’ to the United States.

There was a conspicuous lack of hype surrounding the return trip to ‘sister city’ Gilbert, Arizona. Indeed, one local rep admitted that they knew ‘nothing about it’ .

But make no mistake, this was a major undertaking involving a council delegation of 10, along with delegates from seven companies.

First Citizen Paul Michael was there, as was his wife Angela who was ‘supporting the Mayor throughout the visit’. Joining them were Aldermen Fraser Agnew and Mark Cosgrove and Councillors Noreen McClelland and Billy Webb.

Fleshing out the team were Strategic Director Majella McAlister, Investment and Engagement Officer Craig Mullan and media officer Ashleigh Doherty.

Chief Executive Jacqui Dixon made the long journey too, accompanied by her husband Campbell - though the council was at pains to stress that he ‘travelled at his own expense’.

The business reps included the Ammlee Group, Environmental Street Furniture, Belfast Artisan Still, Mix Colour Design, FarmFlix, Kleen Freaks and Luxury Tanning - though curiously some of those appear to be based outside the borough.

Nevertheless, the Antrim Guardian has learned that local ratepayers will be picking up the tab.

It is understood that the cost for travel and accommodation weighs in at £1,000 per person - and the council booked no fewer than 17 tickets.

Of course that does not cover meals, but then that’s what expenses are for!

While the visit was conspicuously low key on this side of the Atlantic, over in the USA they appear to have welcomed their guests with open arms. On social media, there were pictures and tweets galore - and they did not go unnoticed.

Temperatures may have hit a balmy mid-20s in Arizona, but ratepayers from a disaffected corner of Antrim and Newtownabbey conspired to make their voices heard.

Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels posted a picture of Paul Michael signing a ‘special proclamation’ to mark their 20 years as ‘sisters’, only to spark an avalanche of criticism from much closer to home.

Erin Massey set the tone when she implored the Americans to exert some useful festive pressure on council top brass.

“Can you ask this Mayor why one of his rate-paying towns received no funding for Christmas when the other four got £210k between them. Why not divide by five?

“A parent would not feed four kids and starve one. Good Americans, please support us.”

Maureen Gibson suggested a trans-Atlantic donation, ‘after all, they have spent our rates to get to the USA’.

Andy from Crumlin heartily agreed stating: ‘The Grinch, Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, stole Crumlin’s Christmas to go to America.”

A picture posted of a meeting set up to discuss tourism and redevelopment sparked a further rebuke.

“Shame, shame, shame on you,” said Angela Barry. “No money for Crumlin’s Christmas tree, plenty for your holidays, eh?”

It is an issue close to the heart of Councillor Annemarie Logue. She was on the last major delegation to Gilbert, but this year she opted out.

“How can we afford this when we’re told that council can’t afford Christmas lights?” she asked.

“I went three years ago and I’ve yet to see what the benefit was. I was told that it paid for itself three times over. Where? What is the business case to send all these people back?”

Well, the council is adamant that it has one - and it is cold, hard cash.

“The trip will pay for itself many times over,” said a spokesperson.

“The sales generated as a result of the trade mission are at least $1 million.”

It is unlikely that this lofty claim will reassure the critics as Christmas lights go on across the borough - though not in Crumlin.

*Read the council’s justification for the latest trade visit to the United States on page 3.

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