Donegal County Council is operating with nearly a third fewer employees than they had in 2008 and on a budget that’s more than €20 million less than it was then. At the same time, the council finished with a balance of more than €400,000 in 2011, a year the county manager called the most difficult “in many, many’s a year”.
Nearly getting lost amid the disruptions at Monday’s council meeting was a report from the county manager indicating that Donegal County Council has improved its financial situation in recent years, despite severe cuts in funding and stretched resources.
“I’m not celebrating the fact that we have achieved savings, but acknowledging the fact that we have adjusted our business with sufficient pace to ensure that our financial situation has not only not disimproved, but has improved,” County Manager Seamus Neely said, during a presentation on the financial performance of the council and the local sector authority from 2008-2011.
He said he wanted to give councillors an overview in light of the national media coverage of local authorities in recent weeks, as the council prepared to file its annual accounts. Mr. Neely cited a national headline that read, “Councils ignoring government warnings to cut their costs and stop borrowing as they plunge deeper into the red.”
“Understandably our citizens out there would wonder what’s happening when they read things like that,” Mr. Neely said. He admitted that some authorities borrow to fund current activities but said, “That is not an accurate reflection of where we are”.
The manager attributed the achievement to efforts by staff and management across the board, to Donegal citizens and to councillors. “It’s a combined effort,” he said.
In his presentation, Mr. Neely told councillors that council staff numbers have dropped from 1,243 in June 2008, to 848 last month, a decrease of 395 staff members or about 32 percent. As a result, payroll costs have dropped 22 percent, from €68.17 million in 2008 to €53 million in 2011, while pension costs have risen 11 percent, from nearly €6.2 million to €6.8 million.
“There have been very considerable staff reductions across the sector,” Mr. Neely said. He said that nationally, local authority staffing has decreased from 37,243 in 2008 to 29,000 at the end of last month, for a reduction of about 22 percent.
The council’s revenue budget has also decreased from €176 million in 2008 to €153 million in 2011, but in those four years the council’s balance at the end of the year has risen from €141,093 in 2008 to €401,256 in 2011.
“For each of eight successive years we have not contributed to our current deficit,” Mr. Neely said. “In fact, if you look at those eight years the current deficit has improved cumulatively.”
“I think that’s quite an achievement,” Mr. Neely said. “That’s quite an achievement for the council.”
Nationally, local authorities have seen a 35 percent reduction in general purpose grants, a 25 percent reduction in grants and subsidies, and a 14 percent reduction in goods and services income, he said.
The manager also reminded councillors that in adopting the council’s 2011 budget, they directed the council executive to find an additional €4 million in efficiencies in a category called “discretionary spending” in order to balance the budget. He said that category also includes such items as heating oil.
The executive had costed the services under that category at about €40 million but committed to reducing the spending by €4 million, Mr. Neely said. “That has happened.”
In terms of council collections, Mr. Neely said that €15 million were collected in rates in 2011. Because the rate currently is 6.5 percent less than it was in 2009, the manager said, “In many ways the amount of cash collected proportionately is more than what it was in 2009.” In the same way, he said the nearly €5.5 million collected in water rates comes from standing charges that are 58 percent less than they were in 2008.
Councillors credited the manager and his team for their work on the finances. The report indicated that the council “has been managed in a proper and efficient manner,” Donegal Mayor, Fine Gael Cllr. Noel McBride said.
“No one should underestimate we have 395 less staff,” said Fianna Fáil Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, adding, “I do not underestimate the challenge on the manager and his team going forward.”
He said he believed that “with the funding that we have available as a council, that we’re doing the very best with it.”
Independent Cllr. Ian McGarvey took the opportunity to wish the 395 former staff members well. “It is quite regrettable the staff have been reduced to that extent,” he said.
Sinn Féin Cllr. Mick Quinn called the manager’s report, “an excellent document.” But he repeated the concerns Sinn Féin had in January, when they would not support the budget. “We in Sinn Féin have grave concerns with regards to council’s ability to provide frontline services to the people of this county” because of allocation and staffing cuts, he said.
Earlier, Labour Cllr. Frank McBrearty, Jr., said he had the “highest confidence” in the manager, and criticised those councillors who did not support the budget. He commended the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and three independent councillors who voted for the budget and said it was “sad that other people in other parties did not contribute to that process”.
Fianna Fáil Cllr. Seamus Ó Domhnaill said the council, “have to ensure services needed by people across the county are provided”, and said the county should get a bigger slice of state funding because of its size and peripheral location.
“We should be receiving more funds and should be receiving a sympathetic ear when we go to Dublin,” he said.