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Paul Melia: We shouldn't waste another cent on our out-of-touch officials

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THE rotten system of payments to councillors has to change. There's little or no transparency in how taxpayers' money is spent, and as a nation we can't afford it.

The €28m bill racked up on pay, allowances and expenses for our city and county councillors last year might not seem a lot in the grand scheme of things.

But at a time when every penny counts, spending money on foreign junkets doesn't send out the right signal.

It's all about perception. No matter how much work these unsung heroes supposedly do, the fact that some travelled to more than 24 countries over the course of last year shows how out of touch they are.

Little has changed in the six years since the Irish Independent first began highlighting the issue of generous, often unvouched, payments made to our 883 part-time city and county councillors.

Granted, their salaries have slightly reduced in that time, while upper limits have been placed on how much can be spent on conferences.

But every year, without fail, there are examples of spending that raise an eyebrow and suggest that local democracy needs the equivalent of the troika to go in and make some changes.

The payments outlined in the Irish Independent today cover all of 2011 -- the same year we learnt we would have to pay a €100 household charge to shore up councils' creaking coffers and protect local services.

There's no doubt that some of that money will be funnelled into further payments to our elected representatives.

It's hard not to be cynical about a system that sees fit to pay for websites, foreign travel and week-long conference junkets at home at a time when the country is on its knees.

This nonsense makes it near-impossible for genuine local representatives, of which there are many, to combat the cynicism around local politics.

One such politician spoke to this newspaper, on condition of anonymity, about the abuse of the system.

They cited examples of colleagues signing into conferences to claim their expenses, but not staying.

Others were driving to far corners of the country to claim the mileage, having a cup of tea and returning home.

The response when the councillor publicly criticised the system: "When you're on the team, you do what the captain says."

In other words, shut up and stop drawing attention to this spending.

But what exactly are our politicians doing for their money? Are they worth it?

The eight regional authorities are among the many outside agencies on which councillors can sit. Each has between 21 and 37 members.

These august bodies are tasked with co-ordinating the delivery of public services, monitoring the spending of EU funds, and ensuring that plans setting out how areas should be developed make sense.

But not a lot of oversight was shown as councillors were zoning enough land during the boom to build more than one million homes that were not needed.

Ask anyone living in rural Ireland if public services are co-ordinated, and you can probably guess the answer.

While many councillors are good, hard-working people with the best interests of their constituents at heart, they are stymied by a dysfunctional system.

What is supposed to be a part-time job has morphed into a full-time occupation for many. Council meetings are now held during working hours, meaning it's very difficult for anyone with a job to commit.

Another cause of dysfunction is that there are simply too many councils.

There are 114 in all, when you add town and borough councils to the city and county councils examined by the Irish Independent today, with too many members and too many jobs for the boys (and girls).

All told, we have 1,627 councillors sitting on all of these councils, representing 4.5 million people. That's one councillor per 2,815 constituents, which by any yardstick is generous.

The Government will shortly announce its plans to reform local government, which will include cuts in the number of councillors and a reduction in town councils. It's unlikely to go far enough.

Changes to the expenses regime and system are badly needed, if only to get rid of the politicians only interested in lining their own pockets.

The number of councils needs to be reduced. Abolishing most of the town and borough councils would remove more than 700 local politicians. A vouched expenses system is needed so payments can be verified, and spending published on council websites.

Maybe the job should become a full-time post? Have far fewer, pay them a salary of, say, €50,000, and let them handle local work. In the process, ban constituency clinics, forcing our TDs and senators to focus solely on national issues, the reason they were elected.

The ridiculous spending on conferences, expenses and fees only adds to the cynicism that surrounds our system of local government.

The list of impositions on families, workers, the elderly, the sick and the least-well off in a series of hard-hitting Budgets is well-known. More pain is on the way.

While €100 here and €300 there on the odd junket doesn't seem a lot, it all adds up to 28 million reasons why your services are being cut and your wallet raided.

Irish Independent