Donegal County Council Chief Executive Officer, Seamus Neely
By Declan Magee
Donegal County Council’s financial position has vastly improved but a prudent and sensible approach must be maintained, the council's chief executive has told the budget meeting for 2017.
Seamus Neely said the council’s financial position is slightly ahead of the milestones the council previously set which saw a reduction in the spending and staff.
Councillors were presented with an estimated revenue budget of just over €135m for next year, an increase of €2.23m on this year’s spending.
Income from commercial rates will account for more than €30.5m of income.
The council says 70 per cent of all commercial business will see a marginal reduction in rates for next year. The overall expenditure of the council has increased to an estimated €135m due to factors which include an increase in payroll of €1.5m, a reduction in income from the Non Principal Private Residence charge of €1.3m, a reduction of higher education grants and fees of €452,000 and a reduction in loan payments of €531,000.
The council's income for next year will see income from sources which include over €16m for Irish Water, €25m from the Local Government Fund and Local Property Tax, and over €11.6m from housing rents.
The council also estimates it will bring in €1m from the targeting of unpaid Non Principal Private Residence charges.
Estimated expenditure will see €17m spent by housing and building, almost €40m spent by road transport and safety, €18m spent by water services; €11.4m spent by development management; €131m by environmental services; €8.8m by recreation and amenity; €2.5m by agriculture, education, and health and welfare; and €23.7 categorised as miscellaneous services.
Mr Neely said considerable progress has been made on many fronts and that the council would continue to strongly reflect the priorities of the council.
The council filled 85 vacancies last year and will recruit between 20 and 25 people this year, Mr Neely said.
The chief executive outlined the priorities which included spending on tourism, community and economic development, roads and housing.
Among the priorities for next year will be urban and village renewal schemes and supporting existing businesses.
Mr Neely said the council has done a lot of work following the UK decision to exit the EU and has worked very closely with Derry and Strabane District Council to engage stakeholders and “help them understand what is coming down the road and what measures they can take”.
The council will host a seminar in Burt next month and Mr Neely said he has been heartened by the positive responses from businesses in the county to Brexit.
The chief executive stressed the work that has been done on a regional basis with Derry and Strabane District Council. This has progressed very well and has brought new opportunities, he said.
A €5m fund for the two councils from the Northern Ireland Executive for the region is expected to be available from January, he added.
Mr Neely said tourism and marketing has been very good in recent years and it had been a priority area for members.
Visitor numbers increased in double figures in 2016 meaning there was between 660,000 and 680,000 visitors to the county.
But Mr Neely pointed out that only 15 per cent of the traffic on the Wild Atlantic Way travels further north than Galway so there is room for further growth.
There is also a need for discussions with the tourism industry around the planning process for the expansion of the capacity in the industry, he said.
The success of the Wild Atlantic Way has been a major feature in the growth of tourism in the county in recent years and Mr Neely said the route was “Brext-proofed” in that 85 per cent of the visitors to it are not in the sterling zone.
Need to remain cautious
Mr Neely said the “exceptional measures” to deal with the council’s loans had reduced from just over €7m in 2015 to €5.8m next year.
Despite the improvement in the finances, Mr Neely said there was a need to remain cautious. “There is always the chance that people feel that is no need to be as intensive in the way we do things,” he said. “A better budget next year will rely on a prudent and sensible approach in 2017.”