The Sinn Fein Party, which has been bridging the gap with mainstream politics countrywide over recent years, took a further step in that direction locally this week when its two representatives on Waterford City Council supported the Council’s budget for 2008.

David Cullinane and Joe Kelly did so despite continued opposition to the inclusion of service charges which they argue should be met by the central exchequer.

And the two Workers Party members, Davy Walsh and John Halligan, broke with a far longer tradition of opposition on the same grounds. They stopped short of making it a unanimous vote in favour however, abstaining instead. Pointedly, Cllr. Halligan was the only member in attendance not to speak, which could well be an indication that he found it difficult to stomach the change in policy.

On Monday night new City Manager Mr. Michael Walsh presented the budget which allows for 10.3 p.c. higher expenditure next year – €62,275,449 compared to €56,459,489 in the current year.

The headings under which that money will be spent are as follows: Housing and Building €13,695,810 (compared to €11,390,556 this year); Road Transportation and Safety €7,939,926 (€7,806,311); Water Supply and Sewerage €6,318,262 (€5,757,276); Development Incentives and Controls €3,764,229 (€3,177,273); Environmental Protection €15,920,774 (€15,510,171); Recreation and Amenity €6,446,499 (€6,037,566); Agriculture, Education, Health and Welfare €5,893,704 (€4,703,956); Miscellaneous Services €2,296,245 (€2,076,380).

Mr. Walsh spoke of significant progress in the last year on the delivery of key infrastructure like the city bypass, main drainage scheme and realignment of the Old Kilmeaden and Williamstown Roads.

He said it was important to marry continued prudent financial management with ongoing investment in services and infrastructure. “In so doing”, he said, “we have to be mindful of future pressures on the financial front while ensuring that the economic potential of the city is realised through continuing investment, focused on the areas of best economic return”.

In respect of the pressures which would come to bear over the next few years, he said the foremost of those would be the implementation of the National Water Pricing Policy. The cost burden deriving from the commissioning of the waste water treatment plant and from major improvements in the Council’s water supply systems would kick in from 2009 and would place a considerable strain on resources.

Equally it was important to make appropriate provision for the new civic headquarters and for the Tall Ships event in 2011. The budget took account of all that through increases in revenue expenditure in the different areas.
School water levies
The Manager said that in relation to income generation he was mindful of the need to maintain competitiveness in respect of charges and in general increases were being kept as low as possible. Hence, the new domestic rate was up by only 4 p.c., less than projected inflation of at least 5 p.c., refuse collection remained the same except for an extra €20 on the annual household charge and there was no change in parking charges beyond the rise from €1.40 to €1.50 for street parking imposed last month with the conversion to metering.

Commercial water rises to €1.53 per cubic metre from €1.05, which is reflective of the commencement of the cost burden arising from wastewater and water supply infrastructure improvements.

The Manager made reference to the current controversy over plans to levy schools for domestic water supply, saying that while under EU regulations local authorities had no choice in the matter. But he promised to work closely with the schools on the issue and believed the cost could be restricted to between €2,000 and €4,000 annually per school.

He also referred to competition from private waste collectors and was adamant that if the job was to be done properly in terms of best methods of recycling and disposal then the Council collection was by far the best option. Besides they were providing waivers to nearly 4,500 householders who found it too difficult to pay.

He said the budget as set out would serve the people well, providing a platform for the Council to deliver for the city not only inn 2008 but in the years further ahead.

Positive outlook

Cllr. Tom Cunningham proposed adoption, Cllr. Pat Hayes seconded and the budget was passed with the support of 12 members, the two WP members abstaining and Cllr. Seamus Ryan being unavoidably absent. All acknowledged the contribution to the document made by Finance Officer Mr. John Murphy and his staff.

Reservations were voiced by several members over the pending charges on schools for water, with Cllr. Davy Walsh stating that his party (WP) had been in touch with the EU Commission that morning and was told the charges were not mandatory at all.

The general tenor of the meeting overall was one of positivity, encapsulated in the contribution of Cllr. Mary Roche who said the quality of life now on offer in Waterford was recognised not only countrywide but throughout Europe. Looking ahead, she said that by 2010 she saw the city offering not only a completed motorway bypass but a university, an airport catering for jet aircraft, expanded port facilities, new city centre shopping developments, the North Quays development under way with a pedestrian bridge across the river leading to it, development of a historic quarter and of neighbourhood services.

Statistics in the budget document showed that housing units completed this year numbered 502. Unfortunately, they also showed that there were 53 bogus calls to the local fire brigade during the year.