Council staff in the Mid Ulster area are being offered counselling to help cope with the looming upheaval in local government, it has been revealed.
Employees can take classes in ‘emotional resilience’ ahead of the massive shake-up later this year when – after more than a decade of delay and uncertainty – Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt District Councils will amalgamate into one so-called super council.
Employees will be offered the counselling to deal with the proposed changes in their work patterns when the new councils are formed.
But questions are already being asked over whether the initiative is worthwhile in the current harsh economic climate.
And the decision to go ahead with the courses, which have been branded ‘mumbo-jumbo’, could also be debated by the Stormont committee which oversees local government.
Last week, SDLP Councillor Anthony McGonnell warned that ratepayers will be left with ‘a mountain of debt’ racked up by the cost of running transition committees and overseeing the changes necessary to merge Dungannon Council with Cookstown and Magherafelt Councils.
The bill will likely include the cost of running a shadow council and transition committees, local elections, and overseeing employment changes, branding, advertising and salaries.
The cost of paying the expenses of the shadow council members is estimated as costing more than £500,000.
“Implementing the changes that are necessary will open up a minefield of expenses”, said the Clogher Valley councillor.
“The decision to streamline local government was made at the top political level, and I believe that Stormont should foot the bill, rather than the new super councils.
“After all, it is the government that is forcing this on local councils and it is unfair that we should be paying the price. The great irony is that the council structures were changed as a means to save money for the ratepayer, rather than hike up their bills.”
The Stormont minister in charge of the changes, Mark H Durkan, has made clear however that his department is not picking up the bill.
Instead, councils themselves appear to be funding the one-day workshops, which cost £60 per person and could then be passed on to rate-payers.
But Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott, a member of the Stormont committee monitoring the overhaul of local councils, said: “I think you would have to question how useful this is going to be.
“I am all in favour of training for both staff and councillors, but not in favour of training for training’s sake. The process, both in terms of content and the financial aspect, could amount to mumbo jumbo.
“Obviously, there are going to be amalgamations, but is it any different really from one business amalgamating with another, and do staff get trained in building resilience for that?
“And is it any different really from people changing their jobs, and again, why is this being front-loaded before the changes have even taken place, rather than nearer 2015, when the new councils become operational?”
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said the issue could be discussed by the committee. “I would like to see the plans and also how much it is costing,” he added.