Friday 23 February 2018

How councillors ran up payments bill of €75m

Part-time earnings now outstrip average wage, investigation reveals

Edel Kennedy and Fiach Kelly

CITY and county councillors received more than the average industrial wage for each of the past two years as they ran up a massive €75.6m payments bill, an Irish Independent investigation has found.

It also reveals that up to half the conferences attended by local politicians from some counties were organised by companies with links to three serving or former councillors.

The revelations will raise further questions about the lucrative earnings of our part-time politicians, who earned an average of €32,398 per annum over the last two years. Despite cuts to local authority budgets, this is still almost €3,800 more than today's average industrial wage.

Our investigation -- conducted over five months and involving information collated from more than 150 bodies for the years 2008 and 2009 -- reveals earnings have grown rapidly each year since 2005, when €26m was paid. It also reveals:

  • Scores of councillors attended seminars on how to boost their personal vote in local elections. One taxpayer-funded seminar was held to show councillors how to claim all their "entitlements".
  • Two high-profile sibling councillors claimed almost €110,000 in one year.
  • One council spent €88,000 on conferences fees and an additional €284,000 on hotels and mileage.
  • One councillor claimed overnight expenses to stay in a hotel just 25 miles from her home.
  • Two councillors took a €12,388 trip to the US on St Patrick's Day. Twelve others enjoyed a €20,000 trip to Tennessee.
  • Some councillors used up more than half their conference allowance to attend summer schools -- some costing in excess of €1,400 each.
  • Others failed to turn up at conferences, despite their council paying out hundreds of euro in attendance fees.

Environment Minister John Gormley -- who has introduced new limits on the tax-free allowances given to councillors -- last night said councillors were only entitled to claim "reasonable" expenses.

"At a time of tough economic challenges, all politicians must take a share in spending cuts," he said.

"The figures compiled for the Irish Independent date partially from a time before my reforms and point to the need for the changes we brought in."

Earlier this year, Mr Gormley announced plans to impose a €4,700 annual conference limit, with limits as low as €1,000 for some town councillors. The conference fees are paid for by councils out of the councillors' allowance. Mr Gormley made the changes after seeing "conferences which were not really conferences".

The investigation found that a large number of seminars often last for just four hours. But because registration takes place the night before, those attending claim for an overnight stay in addition to mileage.

It also found that councillors would often do a 500-mile round trip to a seminar rather than attend the same one in their own county on a different date. Expenses varied wildly across the representatives, with some claiming the minimum -- but others claim every cent.

One Leinster-based councillor admitted to a €2.60 travel claim to attend a local dinner dance.

While travel has been reduced for 2009, many councillors still made their regular St Patrick's Day trip to the US at a cost of tens of thousands of euro.

Despite the revelations, the head of an umbrella group representing councillors last night insisted our part-time politicians were not paid enough.

Association of County and City Councillors president -- South Tipperary-based councillor Michael Fitzgerald -- also defended conferences, which he described as "most educational", and criticised Mr Gormley's cap of €4,700.

"It's too low," he told the Irish Independent, adding that they had sought a €6,000 limit.

When asked about abuses of the conference system, Mr Fitzgerald said he believed "that day is gone".

"If there was abuse there in the past. . . and there's no doubt there was abuse, I think that certainly is gone now."

He added that the work of a councillor had become "extremely difficult" and was now a 24/7 job. He claimed that councillors were almost expected to do more than a TD.

"You have to work extremely hard at it now because if you don't the public certainly won't elect you come the next election."

There are currently 883 city and county councillors on 34 councils. They only started receiving a formal salary, known as a representative payment, in 2002. It now stands at around €17,000 and is taxable.

Added to this, councillors receive a tax-free annual allowance, a tax-free conference budget, and €600-a-year mobile phone allowance.

Allowances for mayors or chairpersons of councils are taxed on a modified level, while additional expenses are earned from sitting on the boards of regional authorities, colleges, fisheries boards and others.

Councillors over 50 who were not returned in last year's local elections -- even those who chose not to stand -- were entitled to a lump sum payoff of as much as €70,416. A number of others will be entitled to retirement gratuity when they reach the age of 50.

The average payment in 2009 was lower than the 2008 average because of the June 2009 local elections. The fact that some councillors lost their seats -- while others were newly elected -- means that a greater number were getting payments.

The figures do not include the payments made to town councillors.

Irish Independent

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