A surprise agreement and an absent councillor saved Donegal County Council from possible dissolution on Monday when they adopted a revenue budget for 2014 by a 15-14 vote.
Donegal Mayor, independent Cllr. Ian McGarvey, provided the casting vote to break the tie on the 138 million euro package.
The budget leaves commercial rates and non-residential water charges at 2013 levels.
The agreement between Fine Gael councillors and independent Cllr. John Campbell, coupled with the absence of Fianna Fáil Cllr. Rena Donaghey, brought an end to the marathon budget meeting, which began on Dec. 18th and stretched over four days, lasting more than 40 hours in all and punctuated by 26 adjournments.
When councillors reconvened Monday after a dinner break, it emerged that Fine Gael was considering proposals that Cllr. Campbell had raised in discussions last week with political groupings and council management. Cllr. Campbell said earlier in yesterday’s meeting that he had not received support for his proposals last week, but when the meeting was adjourned, and the council seemed destined to reject the budget and face possible dissolution by Minister Phil Hogan, it appeared that Fine Gael was having second thoughts.
Shortly after 8.30pm, after the meeting reconvened, Barry O’Neill brought forward a revised budget proposal that included proposals Cllr. Campbell had made last week, as well as some proposals that had been in the adjustments Fine Gael had brought forward last Tuesday.
The revised budget that Fine Gael proposed last week failed 15-13, with Fine Gael and Labour councillors and four independent councillors voting in favour and Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin councillors and Cllr. Campbell voting against.
Fine Gael and Labour councillors and independent Cllrs. Campbell, Michael McBride, Pádraig Doherty, Frank McBrearty Jr. and Ian McGarvey voted in favour of the revised budget Monday night.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin maintained their opposition to the budget, but Cllr. Donaghey, who was at the meeting earlier on Monday, had left at about 6.30pm and was not in the chamber for the vote. Fianna Fáil Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, party whip, said later that Cllr Donaghey is a part-time teacher with the Donegal Education and Training Board, formerly the VEC, and left to teach a class. He said the party had not anticipated that Cllr. Campbell would change his position.
Cllr. Campbell tweeted last night that he will give a full statement this morning (Tuesday).
The revisions in the adopted budget call for an increase of 250,000 euro in tourism and promotion funding; an increase of 50,000 euro in the small repairs budget for local roads; an increase of 50,000 euro for Donegal Library Service for the purchase of library books; maintenance of the development fund initiative and members development fund at current levels; the introduction of the Donegal Brand initiative to protect Donegal producers; 25,000 euro for the Donegal GAA Centre of Excellence; support of the ongoing governmental review of the commercial rates system and lobbying for exemptions for small and start-up businesses; a reduction of 5,000 euro in the home travel allowance for elected members; a reduction of 8,000 euro in the budget for civic receptions; a reduction of 10,000 euro in funds for elected members’ conferences abroad; a reduction of 16,525 euro in the allowance for mayor and deputy mayor; and the abolition of the allowance for strategic policy committee chairpersons, at a savings of 34,000.
Cllr. O’Neill said the 375,000 euro needed to balance the budget would come from maximising collection accounts.
Fianna Fáil had sought an adjournment to consider the proposals, but their request was rejected by the same margin that adopted the budget.
Speaking after the vote, Cllr. Brogan said he thought it was wrong they were not afforded an opportunity to discuss the amendment.
“One change has happened and that is Cllr. Campbell decided to change his position,” Cllr. Brogan said, adding that, “It’s a democratic society we live in and I’m glad our party didn’t allow ourselves to sell its soul for 30 pieces of silver.”
He said the council is not receiving enough funding for roads and housing maintenance and said, “The whole issue of Irish Water is something that will not go away.”
Cllr. Brogan said the council budget was “rammed through in much the same way as the decision to ram through Irish water in the Dáil”.
“We’re living in a democratic society and the people will have a chance to have their say,” he said.
Cllr. Campbell said the proposal was broadly shown last week to Cllr. Brogan, “so it came as no surprise to them what was in it”.
“The only disappointment I had was that it took us this long to do the business,” Cllr. Campbell said. “I don’t think we’re doing business properly or efficiently in this chamber,” he said, pointing to “old politics and enmity between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael”.
“My stall was set out early on,” Cllr. Campbell said.
He said his proposal “was there for any of the parties to see and I spoke to them all about it and got their views on it and I think it’s disingenuous to say ‘he flipped’ or changed his mind.”
Sinn Féin Cllr. Mick Quinn, party whip, said he was “bitterly disappointed” they were not afforded an opportunity to discuss the amendments with the council executive.
“We were frogmarched into voting on this budget and I think that’s desperately unfair,” he said, adding, “Sinn Féin never wanted to get to the stage that Donegal County Council would fall, but we clearly believed we had no option but to vote against this budget.”
Cllr. Quinn said, “It’s clear Donegal has been ignored and has been fed the crumbs from the Dublin table. Now we had a huge opportunity to try and force the minister, to force his hand to address our needs.”
Cllr. O’Neill, Fine Gael party whip, defended the budget.
“No matter what way people dress this up, Donegal County Council services are protected for 2014 and more so we have done our duty as per the electorate,” he said.
“Neither Fianna Fáil nor Sinn Féin engaged proposals formally on the floor of this council and shame on them,” Cllr. O’Neill said.