Councillors adjust spending to add €400,000 to roads

Donegal county councillors on Tuesday adopted an amended €148m revenue budget for 2012 that took €400,000 from other areas of council spending and revenue to add to the budget for local roads maintenance.

Donegal county councillors on Tuesday adopted an amended €148m revenue budget for 2012 that took €400,000 from other areas of council spending and revenue to add to the budget for local roads maintenance.

The budget passed by a vote of 22-5, supported by Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and three independent councillors. All four Sinn Féin councillors and independent Cllr. John Campbell voting against the package.

The amended budget also gives new start-ups that meet certain criteria 12 months before they must pay commercial rates, establishes a value-for-money committee and puts a hold on implementation of new parking charges until local businesses are consulted, among other initiatives.

But after the budget was adopted, councillors from all groupings still spoke of concerns over funding for areas of council services for the coming year.

Sinn Féin councillors had said that they could not support the budget unless the central government provided more money. Cllr. Campbell said that on principle he would not support a budget based on income from the household charge, which he opposes, and agreed with Sinn Féin that the budget as it stood did not include enough funding for council services.

“We in Sinn Féin firmly believe our role is to provide, protect and secure the best services we possibly can for this county,” said the party whip, Cllr. Mick Quinn. “I have absolutely no doubt this does not provide, protect or secure the best services for this county.”

But saying that “common sense has prevailed” after the budget was adopted, Fine Gael Cllr. Bernard McGuinness said that because the council had discharged its duty by adopting a budget and setting rates, “we can go to any minister and say we need money for x, y or z, and we do need extra money”.

A nine-hour session

The budget vote came at the end of a nine-hour session that included six adjournments and saw councillors spend most of the day in a series of closed-door negotiations. At 5.30 pm, they reconvened to review amendments that had been agreed by Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and independent Cllrs. Pádraig Doherty, Ian McGarvey and Michael McBride.

The adopted budget maintains the commercial rates outlined by County Manager Seamus Neely in the draft revenue budget, leaving them at 69.70, unchanged from 2011. The standing commercial water charge is reduced from €175 to €150 and volumetric charges are up by 15 cents per cubic metre for water and 5 cent per cubic metre for wastewater.

The annual council budget meeting on Dec. 21st was adjourned after Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil councillors said they could not support the package. Sinn Féin would not support the budget without more money from central government. Fianna Fáil outlined a number of issues of concern, but party whip, Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, said chief among them was the cut of €1 million in the council’s own resources for maintenance of local roads.

On Tuesday, Cllr. Brogan said the party was “delighted” with the €400,000 increase for local roads. He said the €400,000 would be discretionary spending for electoral areas, “to ensure we use this for tar and chips, and to provide the basic road maintenance that’s necessary.”

Cllr. Brogan said, “Nobody should underestimate the challenge this has been for the Fianna Fáil party. I would say down probably to the last half hour we would not be in a position to support this budget going forward.” The turning point was the €400,000, he said. But the councillor said he recognised there were “going to be huge challenges for management going forward”, and acknowledged that Fianna Fáil was supporting the budget “with huge reservations”.

Supports for business, parking and islands

The increased roads allocation was among several amendments that Fine Gael Cllr. Barry O’Neill presented when the council reconvened at 5.30 pm. He proposed them on behalf of Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and the three independent councillors who would later vote for the budget.

The cross-party grouping insisted that a value-for-money committee be established “to address best practice as regards the further management of costs, the best standards as regards procurement and tendering”. They recommended the eight-member committee include members of each political grouping on the council.

Cllr. O’Neill said the cross-party grouping also recommended that the Community Assist Programme be restored to enable community groups deliver on small roads projects by accessing materials from the fund.

They also called for the Development Fund Initiative to be set at €500,000, down €40,000 from 2011, with that €40,000 euro equally divided between the Buncrana Leisure Centre and a fund for Donegal’s offshore islands. Additionally, €25,000 would be ringfenced from DFI to each electoral area for ferries in the Inishowen and Letterkenny areas.

Additionally, the cross-party group want the Members Development Fund retained at the 2011 level of €184,000. They also proposed that a social clause be included in future contracts with the private sector, ensuring employment and materials are sourced within the county.

Cllr. O’Neill repeated a proposal he made on behalf of Fine Gael at the Dec. 21st meeting, calling on the council to consider an initiative that would see small start-up businesses within towns remain commercial rate-free for the first 12 months. The businesses must have a floor space of less than 3,000 square feet and could not be already available within the town.

“Over the last two years there has been concern across County Donegal about the drain of business from our town centres,” Cllr. O’Neill said, adding, “Our town centres require urgent revitalisation.”

He said the scheme would create opportunities and employment, and revitalise town centres, “which will in turn create confidence, helping existing business and increasing footfall and choice for consumers.”

The cross-party agreement also said that no new parking charges should be implemented without prior consultation with local businesses.

Balanced budget

To present a budget balanced as required, County Manager Neely and councillors had to adjust spending equal to councillors’ proposed increases. The money councillors wanted to add to the Development Fund Initiative, the Buncrana Leisure Centre, the islands fund, local roads maintenance and the members’ development fund totalled €680,000.

Mr. Neely told councillors that the draft budget he presented last month provided for council operation in “as efficient and effective a manner as possible”, and called the draft, “my best effort at doing that.”

He said he regarded the draft “as a rational proposal based on sound principles”, though he acknowledged that it “places asks on the organisations and changes in expectations that are different from what we have experienced before”. In his budget presentation to councillors last month, Mr. Neely said that the council now operates on €102,000 less per working day than they had in 2007.

The manager said a value-for-money committee could be established at no cost, adding, “I can see it bringing some value to the organisation”. He also said the local authority could work with proposals to accommodate Community Assist and to implement social clauses in contracts where possible.

In response to a suggestion from Fianna Fáil Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, Mr. Neely said he believed the council could generate an additional €100,000 from the leasing and disposal of council land in 2012. In his budget remarks, Cllr. Brogan had said that the council has more than 5,000 pieces of property.

“I think there needs to be a full report back on how we can get a better return on the assets we have,” Cllr. Brogan said.

Mr. Neely also suggested reducing purchasing for libraries by €50,000 and financial management services by €15,000. He said he expected the council could achieve €370,000 in increased revenue from council services, and incorporated €200,000 that had been set aside for a business support fund into the Development Fund Initiative.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr. Neely said he was pleased that the budget had been adopted.

“I’m satisfied we can deliver the range of services indicated in the book,” the manager said.

Expletives used in chamber discussion

Independent Cllr. John Campbell cited provisions in the Local Government Act in asking for a written copy of the budget amendment before councillors were asked to vote.

“I am asking that it be put down in black and white,” Cllr. Campbell said. “It should be clearly identified what we are voting on here.”

Mr. Neely said he would leave it to councillors to determine whether the verbal outline of the amendments delivered at the meeting was sufficient to meet the provisions of the Act. “In the interest of absolute clarity I would be happy to take an adjournment for 10 minutes to put it down on paper,” the manager said.

But Cllr. Brogan said he believed the county manager’s oral response to the amendments was enough, saying, “I think we should go ahead and adopt the budget.”

Sinn Féin and Fine Gael councillors agreed with Cllr. Campbell’s suggestion, but Labour Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr. said he agreed with Cllr. Brogan. Rising from his seat, Cllr. McBrearty said that Cllr. Campbell, a national school teacher who came to the meeting after he finished teaching on Tuesday, had arrived at 4.15 pm and was creating “mayhem”.

When Cllr. Campbell asked Cllr. McBrearty to sit down, Cllr. McBrearty replied, “You make me sit down. Your gang’s not here today to protect you. You’ll need Pringle and the whole [expletive] lot of them.”

The meeting was adjourned for the writing of the amendment.

Later, after the budget was adopted, Fianna Fáil Cllr. Gerry Crawford expressed his continued concern with roads maintenance, particularly roads in the Stranorlar Electoral Area.

The councillor held up two pages showing photographs of potholes in Raphoe, St. Johnston and Lifford area roads. There was one that sank 17 inches deep, the councillor said.

“These are roads that people live on,” Cllr. Crawford said, saying later, “I wouldn’t say the people in these areas are second-class citizens ... they’re forgotten about.”

Cllr. McBrearty interrupted Cllr. Crawford several times, saying that he had gotten a local road tarred and asking, “You’re worried about Raphoe?” He also questioned Fianna Fáil’s commitment to area roads when that party was in government.

Donegal Mayor, Fine Gael Cllr. Noel McBride, asked Cllr. McBrearty several times to remain silent while Cllr. Crawford was speaking.

But Cllr. McBrearty said, “What is this, a party political broadcast? I’m not going to be quiet listening to that.”

Shortly after, he said, “It’s like a [expletive] circus.”

Concerns remain

Councillors and the county manager credited each other and senior council staff for their work on the budget. Still, councillors expressed concerns.

Fianna Fáil Cllr. Patrick McGowan, who supported the budget, said he wanted directors to give councillors a plan on “how they intend with the limited resources we have to roll out and maintain the roads. And I’m talking about here in east Donegal.”

Cllr. Quinn said that for council to provide vital services, the minister must increase the council’s Local Government Fund allocation, which was cut by €2.6 million for 2012.

“We are looking solely for the same rights and entitlements for the people of Donegal that other people of the state enjoy,” he said. Cllr. Quinn said Donegal has been devastated by unemployment and emigration and said the Vat increase will leave Donegal traders struggling to remain competitive “with businesses who in some cases may be based 100 yards from their very doors”.

The councillor said Sinn Féin “believes the government is robbing this council and expects us in turn to rob our own people,” referring to the collection of what he called “a deeply unfair household charge from people who are being squeezed to the very limit”.

Cllr. McBrearty said he hoped the government would provide an additional roads allocation to the council this year as they did last year, calling the budget “the best deal Donegal could get.”

“I’m not happy that we don’t have enough money,” he said. “But we’ve got what we’ve got and we have to work with it.”

Independent Cllr. Ian McGarvey said he appreciated concerns about the roads but said, “One overriding factor is we’ve come to a decision today to move forward and not be lamenting about what the situation is.”

Sinn Féin Cllr. Marie-Therese Gallagher said some aspects of the budget amendments had been adopted by council in previous years, though not implemented. She said she proposed funds for the islands last year, Sinn Féin brought forward a motion on social clauses for contracts in 2009, and she had brought forward a motion for a value-for-money committee in 2008. All were moved and seconded, she said. Cllr. Terence Slowey had also brought forward a motion calling for a value-for-money committee.

“If you come in here with a motion and it’s proposed and seconded, it is a policy of the council,” Cllr. Gallagher said.

She questioned whether the council had sent a clear message to government. “We should have taken a stand that we cannot provide a service to the people of this county for this amount of money,” she said. “I think that would have been a clear message to the minister and to the government.”

Cllr. Brogan welcomed the manager’s confirmation that funding for tourism promotion for 2012 would not be cut from 2011 levels and said the party was also concerned about housing grants, though said they believed management was prepared to fund grants for all applications received. He also repeated his request for council to review the way road maintenance is undertaken

“I don’t believe the issue we have on roads is all about money,” he said. “The challenge for the executive going forward is to look at the practices we have.”

Mayor McBride said there was a clear message that he wanted sent out from Tuesday’s budget meeting.

“Donegal will continue to work and will continue to deliver services,” he said.