Varadkar told official to drop €900k action against swim centre
SPORTS Minister Leo Varadkar advised a cash-strapped local authority not to pursue a legal action aimed at getting the National Aquatic Centre (NAC) to pay almost €900,000 in commercial rates.
Newly released records show Mr Varadkar wrote to Fingal County Manager David O'Connor telling him that the authority should accept a High Court ruling that the NAC was not liable for the payments.
He suggested the council should not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Fingal County Council decided not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but has insisted it had nothing to do with Mr Varadkar's intervention.
The council, which had an estimated budget deficit of more than €140,000 last year, initiated the High Court case in an attempt to overturn a decision by the Commissioner of Valuation that the NAC was not eligible for rates.
The council had argued that the pool and gym – both in Mr Varadkar's constituency – offered services comparable to private commercial gyms and should pay rates.
It had calculated that the NAC was eligible for almost €900,000 in rates for the years 2007 to 2009 inclusive.
High Court Judge Michael Peart rejected the council's argument in December 2011, agreeing with the commissioner's view that the NAC was state-controlled and so not required to pay.
Mr Varadkar raised the matter in an email to Mr O'Connor just over a week after the High Court judgment.
He wrote: "I note that the Sports Campus won the case on the rates for the Aquatic Centre in the High Court."
Mr Varadkar said Environment Minister Phil Hogan was drawing up new legislation that would mean the NAC would have to pay rates in the future.
And he said: "Might I suggest that rather than appealing to the Supreme Court, FCC (Fingal County Council) should accept the decision of the High Court in the knowledge that rates will be paid in future years if not in arrears."
Mr O'Connor replied to the minister in January last year, and said he was waiting for legal advice "before we can confirm that we are planning to leave the judicial process".
Mr Varadkar last night rejected suggestions that his intervention was inappropriate, saying he advised the council not to appeal the case because "public bodies should not waste money, or staff time, pursuing legal actions against each other".
He added: "Lawyers are the only people who benefit, at the expense of the taxpayers."
He said he had not been lobbied on the issue by the National Sports Campus Development Authority (NSCDA) which runs the NAC, and denied that he intervened because the swimming pool is in his constituency.
Mr Varadkar said: "Both Fingal County Council and the Sports Campus are in my constituency so obviously constituency considerations were not a factor.
"Fingal County Council's legal advisers reached the same conclusion as I did and the council decided not to appeal the case."
A spokesman for the NSCDA said: "The authority did not lobby the minister in respect of the rates issue."
He added that the organisation "is not aware of the current position/status of proposed amendments to the rates/valuation legislation and the impact of same".
An amendment to the Valuation Bill that will bring the NAC and similar bodies into the rates regime went through the Seanad last October. It will go before an Oireachtas committee in the coming months.