Rates blunder could lead to bankruptcy

TUV leader Jim Allister.
TUV leader Jim Allister.

A local woman faces bankruptcy because of a mistake made by the Department of Finance’s rates department, it has been claimed.

The case of businesswoman Denise Montgomery, owner of the Beau Beauty salon in Ballymoney Street, was raised by North Antrim MLA Jim Allister at Stormont last week.

During the second reading debate on the budget, Tthe TUV leader devoted part of his speech to highlighting how, in his words, the DFP and its minister, Simon Hamilton, had pursued her business to the bankruptcy courts over a debt which was the department’s fault.

Mr. Allister said they had wrongly advised Denise that her rates were £3000pa and then decided they were £10,000pa and demanded full arrears. In a statement, Mr. Allister noted the lack of response from the minister on the case.

This week, the Times spoke to Mrs. Montgomery, described as a ‘lady of initiative’, by Mr. Allister to hear how the situation came about.

She explained that in 2009, she had established her business on Ballymoney Street and that the rating department had written to her stating that her rates would be be £3,000 a year.

“On that basis, I drew up a budget and made my financial plans but two years later, the same rating department from the same Department told us our rates were, in fact, £10,000 a year. To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement - it was a body blow because I had acted in good faith throughout. It was their mistake,” she said.

Despite the shock, Denise re-assessed her position and budgeted to cope with the new £10,000 per year bill - but it was the department’s adamant demand for repayments to cover the period when she was under-charged which really hit a raw nerve.

At Stormont, Mr. Allister contended: “In that most high-handed of ways that only departmental officials sometimes can carry off, they simply tell her, as if it is nothing to do with them, ‘you owe us an extra £7,000 for the three years’. That lady has been faithfully paying the £10,000 a year ever since.

“But the debt repayments - only required because of the Department’s mistake - is like an albatross around the neck of the business. “What does the Department do? They throw back in her face the money that she is prepared to pay to try to pay down the debt. She offers to pay them £50 a month, because her budget is so tight. The Department says, “Not at all. We need it all”. The best they will do is, I think, £260 a month.

“That is what they need. It is undoable for her. What does the same Department, headed up by the Minister who tells us so many times at the Dispatch Box that he is interested in helping business, do? It issues bankruptcy proceedings against the lady to try to put her out of business.

“Instead of recognising their fault and trying to stretch to make an arrangement that can keep her in business, their cruel action is to try and bankrupt her. Shame on this Department, which has squandered so much money elsewhere; it cannot even find an accommodation for someone who is struggling and who, through no fault of her own, has been put in this position. All she gets is the bureaucratic slap down from the Minister and the Department.

“That is shameful. I thought that the Department was capable of better than that. I also thought that it might have taken them less than three months to reply, but there you are.”