30 hour budget meeting finally gets agreement

Donegal County Council’s annual budget meeting – which lasted for more than 30 hours and stretched into three different days – came down to a disagreement over about €33,000 within the €133.2 million revenue package for 2013.

Donegal County Council’s annual budget meeting – which lasted for more than 30 hours and stretched into three different days – came down to a disagreement over about €33,000 within the €133.2 million revenue package for 2013.

Shortly after 5.10am on Tuesday, by a vote of 20 to four, councillors finally approved an amended revenue budget that saw no increase in commercial rates, water charges or council rents.

The budget councillors adopted included amendments prepared by County Manager Seamus Neely and senior council staff, in response to issues councillors had raised during budget deliberations.

The 2013 budget includes €255,000 more for housing maintenance over this year’s allocation, and also called on the local authority to prioritise the refurbishing of now-vacant housing, earmarking an additional €60,000 for rents from refurbished and relet units.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour councillors, along with independent Cllrs. Pádraig Doherty, Michael McBride, Ian McGarvey and Terence Slowey, voted for the budget.

Sinn Féin councillors and independent Cllr. John Campbell voted against it, saying there was not enough funding for housing maintenance.

The budget meeting began last month, on Dec. 19th, with a session that was adjourned without agreement after 13 hours. The meeting reconvened on Monday, shortly after noon.

Monday’s marathon was punctuated by 20 adjournments to allow talks within and between political groupings on amendments proposed by Fianna Fáil, by Sinn Féin and Cllr. Campbell and by Fine Gael, Labour and the four independent councillors. The adjournments took up much of the reconvened session.

After the budget was adopted, Fianna Fáil party whip, Cllr. Ciaran Brogan, pointed to similarities between the final package and the final Fianna Fáil proposal, suggesting that adoption could have come much earlier.

“This is the first time ever that we’ve been here until ten past five and I want to say this: I hope it’s the last time, because I tell you, there have to be lessons learned from this process,” Cllr. Brogan said.

He said he had nothing personal against any members in the chamber, “but I do feel sometimes personality seems to get in the way.”

“I believe the reason we didn’t have agreement earlier this evening was because the proposal was a Fianna Fáil proposal, and that’s wrong,” Cllr Brogan said.

However Fine Gael party whip, Cllr. Barry O’Neill, also pointed to similarities between the adopted budget and the Fine Gael proposal, saying the increase in maintenance came from the Fine Gael plan.

He focused on the maintenance of current rent, rate and water charges, saying, “There are more good stories in this budget than anything else.”

“I think we performed a duty, no matter what people want to say,” he said.

“The facts are there in black and white,” Cllr. O’Neill added. “This is a very good budget.”

Speaking after 3.30am, Clr. Campbell said, “The other two proposals are extremely similar. I can’t understand why we’re still here.”

The last Fianna Fáil proposal found about €33,000 more in savings than the Fine Gael plan, €363,272 to €330,000.

Fianna Fáil’s savings included €15,000 from abolishing foreign travel for elected members, €18,000 from a one per cent energy and efficiency savings on the council’s public lighting budget, and more than €80,000 from an accelerated repair and reletting of council houses.

Fine Gael, in their last proposal, called for €20,000 to be ringfenced from the sale or lease of council properties and applied to housing, and also called for the maintenance budget to be increased to €255,000.

However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s final proposals were similar in the amount of efficiencies they wanted the council executive to seek this year – €115,000 and €120,000 respectively.

They also allowed for a €50,000 in payroll cost savings Mr. Neely had highlighted, and accepted the manager’s proposed transfer of €85,000 from internal capital resources for housing repairs.

The proposal submitted by Sinn Féin and Cllr. Campbell sought substantially more funding for housing maintenance, largely by calling on the council executive to further restructure water and waste loans to interest-only for a savings of more than €1.1 million.

While all councillors had rejected a proposal for an increase in council rents, they had disagreed on where to find the estimated €300,000 in revenue that the increase would have generated.

Fine Gael had proposed at the December meeting to take money from housing maintenance and other areas, but Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin proposed adjourning the meeting until January to allow for further debate, and opposed any cuts in maintenance.

Housing maintenance was also a key reason behind Sinn Féin’s and Cllr. Campbell’s ultimate rejection of the budget.

“The most vulnerable of our people will not get the services they deserve,” Sinn Féin party whip, Cllr. Mick Quinn, said.

He said some people in council housing “will continue to live in houses that are cold, draughty and damp.”

The budget was adopted about four hours after councillors found themselves back to considering the original draft budget that contained the rent hike each political grouping said they could not accept last month.

Shortly after 1am, councillors had rejected proposed amendment packages brought forward by Fianna Fáil, by Sinn Féin with the support of Cllr. Campbell, and by Fine Gael, Labour and the four other independent councillors.

That left them left to again consider new or amended proposals to the original draft budget that councillors were presented on Dec. 19th.

At that stage, during further adjournments, the groupings prepared the later proposals that senior staff considered when preparing the composite revisions that ultimately were adopted.

Once the councillors had approved the budget and rates, and several members had spoken, it was after 5.30am when councillors and senior council staff finally left County House in Lifford.