Saturday 17 March 2018

Protest vote sinks budget

Louth councillors made history in rejecting the annual draft budget last week. Olivia Ryan reports on the discord leading to the shock move

Almost three hours into a debate over the draft budget, the annual ding-dong over how money is to be spent across the county, had descended into utter chaos
Almost three hours into a debate over the draft budget, the annual ding-dong over how money is to be spent across the county, had descended into utter chaos

It was, in the words of one Louth Councillor, 'what local democracy at breaking point looks like.'

Almost three hours into a debate over the draft budget, the annual ding-dong over how money is to be spent across the county, had descended into utter chaos.

To the causal observer, it may have simply resembled another row at a council meeting before they actually got down to the business of voting.

Nothing new there then.

But this it soon transpired was an altogether different day, as an altogether different attitude emerged from councillor after councillor, no matter which party, or which area of Louth they represented.

Things started out cordial enough, with the council's CEO Joan Martin and her team of officials outlining the way in which money has been spent and the actions taken over the last year across a wide range of areas from housing to environment, and roads to the library service.

Projections were made then as to how much could be spent on each of these areas for the incoming year, based on what, councillors, heard, were additional pressures from central government.

But like any simmering row, it didn't take long for the mayhem to erupt.

Key to councillor's discontent was a reduction in the allocations they receive every year. In Dundalk and Drogheda these funds are made available to each councillor which custom and practice has dictated they will divide among charities, community groups or sport organisations of their choice.

A proposed cut in this allocation, of €15,000 in each of the Dundalk, Drogheda and Ardee municipal district areas, was never going to go down well with councillors.

But this, it seemed, was only the tip of the iceberg.

Cllr. Kevin Callan began by saying that he would not be voting for the budget as it stood as he didn't accept the cuts to allocations and the cancellation of services such as the bring banks for plastics.

But it was the 'lack of communication' between officials and councillors that became the recurrent theme in the debate which soon began to resemble a blazing domestic row.

Cllr. Callan said he 'could not on principle' support the budget.

Cllr. Frank Godfrey echoed these sentiments, saying morale among members was at 'an all time low.'

He said that he had always been aware of the need to have the budget adopted, but also had a number of concerns this year which would impact on his decision.

The CEO responded that the draft budget she had presented to the council was 'the best use of money that is available to me.'

She explained that the local authority were also facing the additional pressure of paying €750,000 towards the cost of wages and pensions following a national agreement, all of which had to be taken into account when drawing up he budget.

'We spent a very, very long time trying to balance the budget,' said Ms. Martin.

Cllr. Pio Smith also referred to the 'disconnect' between officials and councillors, adding 'to pass the budget without addressing this would be a bad thing.'

Cllr. Doloroes Minogue added that councillors were 'elected to represent their constituencies' saying that adopting a budget was key to that.

Cllr. Mark Dearey added his own concerns about communications from officials.

He also echoed the views of his party colleague Marianne Butler when he questioned why there still had been no 'convergence' of the setting of rates between the towns and the county area.

CEO Joan Martin said that this was something they had ten years to do, although she had hoped it would have been able to be done sooner.

She added that she 'simply couldn't find the money' within the budget to do it at this stage.

Cllr. John McGahon said he had been involved with a number of budgets, and 'still found them a complex and difficult thing.'

He said it was important to know what the consequences were if Louth County Council voted down the budget.

But it was left to the longest serving councillor, Peter Savage, to hammer home, as it were, the deep sense of discord among councillors.

'The reality is that there are no functions left to councillors any more, other than passing the budget.'

He added: 'Only once in my 44 years have I voted against a budget. But this is a protest vote, against the erosion of powers, and the disregard that 'officialdom' have for councillors.

The north Louth councillor said there was 'no working relationship, with a few notable exceptions, between officials and members of the council.

Cllr. Paul Bell was equally vociferous in his criticism of the local authority, saying that 'at no stage did I understand that the failure to increase the property tax would affect community groups and the support they can be given.'

He added: 'What I am demanding is respect for the people I am representing.'

Cllr. Bell said he had voted for 'every single budget no matter what the political implications' but would not support it this year 'when we as councillors are treated as a nuisance, when in fact we are the eyes and ears of democracy.'

He hit out at what he called the 'yeah, we will get back to you, and then no one gets back to you,' response which he felt had emerged.

The Drogheda councillor said he was 'well aware too of the implications of not passing the budget.'

CEO Joan Martin was defiant in her response that she 'absolutely did not reduce the municipal allocations because of anything to do with property tax,' adding 'I am a public servant of more than forty years service, and I take my responsibility very seriously.'

She said she was willing to take calls from councillors 'seven days a week.'

Little progress was being made in advancing towards a decision over the budget until proposals came forward about deferring the decision for up to fourteen days.

The CEO warned councillors that if they voted the budget down entirely, it would then be out of their hands and referred to the Minister, who 'may' give seven days for a solution to be found to the impasse.

She said they retained the option to pass the budget with amendments that could then be debated.

But as the tone of the meeting deteriorated, it soon emerged that deferring the decision was not a likely option.

Cllr. Tomas Sharkey said he felt there was a 'dysfunction, which doesn't lie at any particular desk' but which was leading to the council 'not doing our job effectively.'

He added: 'If we vote the budget down, the Minister may give us seven days. The reality is that if the Minister sees this budget fall, it is the only way for us to get his attention.'

'Accepting an imperfect budget will not give us the attention or the help that we need. This is the time now to look at local government, and look at what needs to be done.'

Cllr. Peter Savage agreed, saying 'We have no mechanism to air our frustrations except at this time of year. I am tired of getting no response to issues I have raised.

'I feel the councillors here are being ignored by officials.'

The CEO outlined again the options available to councillors on the budget vote.

But not even a phone call to the department to 'clarify' what the impact of voting down the budget would be could dispel the air of rebellion among councillors.

So, when the vote to pass or block the draft budget was finally taken, there was little it seemed which could prevent the inevitable.

Just seven councillors voted in favour of adopting the draft budget, with 21 voting against it.

The decision left the local authority in uncharted territory, with the next move being left to the Minister for Housing and Local Government.

The Argus