Sunday 16 June 2019

Council budget finally gets approval for 2019

Margaret Roddy

It took the casting vote of the chairman after three long meetings to pass Louth County Council's budget for 2019.

As the adjourned meeting on Sunday literally approached the eleventh hour, and the prospect of Minister Eoghan Murphy being informed that they hadn't fulfilled their statutory duties by midnight, the councillors finally passed an amended budget.

It paves the way for €1.10 an hour pay parking in Dundalk and Drogheda, and the introduction of €1 for all day parking in Drogheda's long stay car parks, while the rate for Dundalk's long stay car parks remains at €2.

Chief Executive Joan Martin had sought a €1.20 an hour pay parking in both Dundalk and Drogheda and re-introduction of a €1 charge for Drogheda's long stay car parks in the draft budget but this was rejected by councillors.

They then had to find €200,000 to fill the gap and did so by making cuts across a number of areas, including the Enterprise Fund, the Business Incentive Schemes, the rates refund for vacant properties, the shop front scheme, town twinning, sports centres, and conferences abroad.

Director of Service Frank Pentony warned that they were 'sending out the message that Louth is not open for business.'

He said he would not be able to pay grants for which he had 20 applications from Drogheda, and he noted that they were making the cuts at a time when there was so much talk about town centres dying.

And in a move to prevent Drogheda councillors from rejecting the changes to pay parking, it was agreed that the County Council would vote on the decision rather than the Municipal District Committees.

The breakthrough in getting agreement on the budget came after a three and a half hour meeting on Sunday evening after rejecting it at two previous meetings.

It emerged at that meeting that they had been sent a letter informing them of their obligations to pass a budget and if they didn't do so, they could be replaced by a commissioner, leaving the county without elected councillors.

The failure to adopt a budget could be seen as 'wilful neglect', they were warned.

Much of the debate was dominated by the Chief Executive's proposal to increase pay parking and this was robustly opposed by Drogheda councillors, with Cllr Frank Godfrey claiming that it was undermining the democratic decision taken at the Drogheda Municipal Council.

Councillors had also asked if the extra income raised by increase pay parking charges could be ring fenced for the two towns, but were told this wasn't possible.

The often tetchy atmosphere at the meetings reflected the deteriorating relationship between the elected representatives and officials at the top table.

There were numerous questions around how much the council had spent on the Fleadh, with councillors complaining that there was a lack of clarity regarding the €250,000 which the Chief Executive said had been allocated to the Fleadh.

Ms Martin complained that 'very serious accusations and insinuations were being made' casting doubt on the figures she had put before the council.

A proposal by Cllr Peter Savage that they 'politely write' to the Fleadh Committee telling them they would to find €250,000 elsewhere and that the Council spend the money on housing maintenance, was defeated at the Wednesday meeting.

Sunday's meeting began with councillors asking a number of questions, leading to Ms Martin rebuking them that they'd had the budget book for three weeks but most of the questions started to come in on Friday evening and staff spent the weekend getting questions and emails.

She said that nobody had explained to her why the budget was refused. 'Nobody has contacted me. My phone is on, I'm available 24 hours a day.'

Tempers frayed as the meeting dragged on, with councillors growing frustrated as their suggestions of various ways of making up the shortfall were ruled out by the officials.

After an initial vote, the Chief Executive told them that they weren't presenting a balanced budget and she would be informing the Minister at midnight that the Council had wilfully failed in its duty to pass a balanced budget.

She accused them of knowing the implications and not caring about what they were doing.

'That is outrageous' protested Cllr Mark Dearey, while Cllr Frank Godfrey called for forensic accountants to be brought in.

Amid complaints from councillors that they weren't being giving the information they needed to make decisions and that they had been misled as regards how much discretionary funding was available to reduce, the chairman Cllr Liam Reilly called for a further recess.

A proposal by Cllr Colm Markey which included cuts to the Enterprise Fund, the Business Incentive Schemes, the rates refund for vacant properties, the shop front scheme, town twinning, sports centres, and conferences abroad, to make up the shortfall, was put to the meeting.

With just over a hour and a half to go to the midnight deadline, the amended budget was eventually passed with the chairman using his casting vote after councillors voted 14 for and 14 against.

The Sinn Fein councillors were joined by Labour councillors Pio Smith and Paul Bell and independents Frank Godfrey and Kevin Callan in voting against the budget. All Fine Gael and Fianna Fail councillors voted for the budget, as did Independent Cllr Maeve Yore.

Drogheda Independent