Compromise leads to approval of council budget 2011
By Carolyn Farrar
In a late-afternoon compromise, county councillors on Monday adopted a 153 million euro revenue budget for 2011 that included a 3.5 per cent cut in commercial rates and a new 250,000 euro fund for transportation and community investment.
Representatives from every political grouping on the council praised recently appointed County Manager Seamus Neely and his team for their first draft budget, and whips from all groupings met collectively with the mayor and county manager behind closed doors to work out the details of the new fund.
Sinn Fin, Labour, Fine Gael and some independents on the council had also expressed an interest in securing a 5 per cent cut in commercial rates, but councillors said that in a meeting held without the news media present Mr. Neely made the case that rates had been reduced as far as they could for 2011. That meeting with the full council came late in the afternoon, after the manager had met with party whips.
That spirit of compromise seemed a far cry from budget meeting scenes of a year ago, when a quorum of nine Fianna Fil councillors and then-Donegal Mayor, Fianna Fil Cllr. Brendan Byrne adopted the council's 2010 budget while the remaining 19 members were engaged in budget discussions down the hall.
The new investment fund was a compromise drawn from recommendations that were made during party whips' responses to the draft revenue budget on Monday. Fianna Fil Cllr. Ciaran Brogan called for something he described as a "community investment fund", which would support such local initiatives as festivals and Tidy Towns committees. "It is important in some small way that we as a council are seen to be working hand in hand with the people," Cllr. Brogan said.
Cllr. MacLochlainn also called for something he called a "strategic transportation fund" to fund such facilities as Donegal Airport and ferries from Buncrana to Rathmullan and Greencastle to Magilligan. Currently council supports for those projects come from community development funds for the Glenties, Letterkenny-Milford and Inishowen electoral areas, taking away from money that could be used for other community-led projects. Fine Gael had also called for central funding for those and other projects.
"We need to take away those transportation projects from the community development stream and put them into a new funding stream," Cllr. MacLochlainn said.
In the afternoon meeting between Mr. Neely; Donegal Mayor, Sinn Fin Cllr. Cora Harvey; and party whips, participants agreed on a funding mechanism for the new fund: It is understood that 20,000 euro would be sliced from the 108,000 euro that each of the council's five electoral areas receive for community development, providing a total of 100,000 euro; and the county manager would match that with an additional 150,000 euro the council would secure from increased efficiencies in procurement. The council's draft 2011 budget already included 4 million euro in savings that the council hopes to achieve through revising procurement approaches.
In Mr. Neely's report on the draft budget on Monday, the manager called the anticipated 4 million euro procurement savings "a big, big ask".
In all, the 250,000 euro fund would target the three transport projects, with 20,000 euro in each of the electoral areas earmarked for supporting local initiatives. The details of the new fund will be discussed further at council's January meeting.
The adopted 2011 council budget also leaves water rates unchanged from 2010 levels.
Monday marked the seventh county council budget meeting for Cllr. MacLochlainn. "It's the first time I've seen the council actually working together on budget day," he said. The deputy mayor said that in past years one party would essentially pass the budget, with other groupings responding.
"What we're seeing now is a new approach to budgets led this year by the mayor and the manager," Cllr. MacLochlainn said. In comparison, he said that in his years on Buncrana Town Council he had seen perhaps one of nine budgets not agreed by consensus. Monday's budget meeting "was a good signal to send to the people of Donegal," Cllr. MacLochlainn said, adding that every elected member was "genuinely involved" in the budget process.
Fine Gael Cllr. Terence Slowey said there has been co-operation at past budget meetings, but called Monday, "one of our best days over my 10 years in the council for us as a body". Of course councillors fought their corner, he said. But "there was no rancor, there was nothing of a negative nature that I saw."
Cllr. Slowey called it "an exceptionally good day for council and for the manager" and said the budget vote represented "a lot of work done in the run-up by all parties".
Labour Cllr. Frank McBrearty Jr., credited power-sharing and the new alliance formed by 18 non-Fianna Fil councillors that followed last year's contentious budget vote with securing the 2011 budget. Cllr Seamus Domhnaill, an independent a year ago, joined Fianna Fil earlier this year.
"Difficult decisions have to be made and those difficult decisions were made" on Monday, Cllr. McBrearty said. For example, he said although groupings sought a 5 per cent rates cut, they concluded, "it wasn't realistic because of the economic difficulties the council finds itself in."
Independent Cllr. Thomas Pringle said, "The new reality in the council is that no one party or group is dominating. I think the budget meeting reflected that too."
Fianna Fil Cllr. Ciaran Brogan said that in the current climate, "I think it's important, irrespective of our political groupings, that we move forward showing our full support of the challenges [the council executive] are having to face." He said Fianna Fil "has always been to the fore of the decision-making and our members have made a very, very positive contribution. I welcome the fact, and I acknowledged this in the chamber, that all the other parties are on board to work together."