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Colum Kenny: State losing the battle for hearts and minds

RTE really stirred it up last week. But why all the fuss on Liveline about Dublin? As a resident of Bray, Co Wicklow, I have had to pay a private collector for years to pick up my bins.

Dubliners are complaining about the short notice of a changeover to private bin collectors. Council binmen are griping about their reallocation to new work. People who live near waste depots do not like the smell.

But bin collection charges are not new. And binmen are not being laid off. And the smell has been there for years. Some Dubliners have been getting away without paying bin charges for too long.

The real story is a warning to the Government. It is that service charges are again in the news. Whether or not Dubliners have a legitimate grievance is beside the point.

Bin charges, water charges, new TV charges, property taxes, septic tank charges. Where will it end?

The story for the Government is that ministers are not winning the battle for hearts and minds. Look at the mess the Revenue Commissioners made of collecting tax from pensioners. This has heightened the sense of public unease that each postal delivery brings a new demand, or increased demands for an existing services such as health insurance or road tax.

Phil Hogan may impress the Troika with his zest for service charges, and talk of job creation. But the cost of those jobs will fall on the public, who may be obliged to employ people to upgrade water pipes and septic tanks when they can least afford it. Will inspectors be paid for each job and so have an incentive to demand work that needs re-inspection?

Pat Rabbitte may be right that a new household charge for television is a more efficient way of collecting money than TV licence fees. But will the money be spent on better programming, or just go to replace direct funding that goes to TG4?

And what if people do not accept legal liability for all the new charges? In the past, honest citizens have paid their legal dues -- only to find neighbours making fools of them. There have been tax amnesties, and a property tax previously ignored without consequence. Many rental properties are not registered and landlords get away with it.

The sense of uncertainty and potential unfairness is politically corrosive. It is one thing to pay if everyone else is paying proportionately. But charges and services even vary from county to county.

It seems highly inefficient to have so many different local and social services in a country the size of Ireland. People pay different amounts for bin collections or have different entitlements to home help.

And why should people in urban areas pay more in property tax than people in rural areas simply because property costs more in urban areas?

The second-house property tax does not augur well for the equity of other new service charges. While most people don't care that owners of second properties have to pay special tax, this is an envy levy -- not a levy on total wealth. You can have a mansion on 200 acres and not pay the tax, or a home in the south of France and evade liability -- but you have to pay extra for owning two small cottages.

And the septic tank shambles is not helping to calm nerves. Tens of thousands of rural dwellers suspect that having to pay to register is just the thin edge of a very thick wedge. Hogan may become an EU Commissioner in Brussels, but he could leave behind a very bad smell if households must pay to replace tanks that function fine in accordance with their planning permission.

The lack of certainty is worrying. Ministers need to say if people will be allowed to sell their houses should they fail to pay all due charges from day one. And if the answer is a big "maybe", then it is not good enough. For it suggests an Irish fudge, one that lets chancers off the hook while milking the honest.

And in the middle of these growing demands, we still have no Oireachtas inquiry to determine where all the money went from banks that taxpayers are forced to replenish at great cost to themselves and their children. Just because the Government got its referendum on Oireachtas inquiries wrong does not stop deputies from making an effort to explain to voters where the money went.

In uncertain times fear breeds suspicion, and Liveline's moaners and groaners last week sounded like they were implying something dubious about the whole idea of privatising bin services. People may suspect the current crisis is being manipulated to enrich business at the expense of social and other services.

At a time when it looks like things will get worse in the immediate future, this Government needs to convince people that all charges are necessary and fair. The Government is not doing so.

Sunday Independent