LOCAL councillors are due to meet this evening (Tuesday) after failing to pass Waterford City & County Council’s 2017 budget presented at the statutory budget meeting.
The proposed budget was presented to councillors at a meeting in City Hall last Tuesday November 29th.
CEO of Waterford City & County Council Michael Walsh outlined that the local authority has a €1.2 million deficit and explained that he was recommending an increase in rates for commercial businesses of 1.2 per cent along with cuts to spending on festivals, roads and housing.
In outlining the proposed budget, Mr Walsh referred to “external factors” at play such as issues with the national economy.
“We’re not insulated from that in any respect so we have to be cautious and have regard to the broader situation,” he said.
He also referred to significant payroll costs and explained that he was proposing a reduction in expenditure in some areas and seeking to increase income in the rates area by a “limited imposition” of just over one per cent.
He also proposed an increase in the vacant sites levy from 20 per cent to 30 per cent.
Mr Walsh reassured councillors that the local authority was investing significantly across city and county and said a “significant change” had taken place in in Waterford.
“We have contributed to that and we will continue to contribute but it’s absolutely necessary that resources are available in order to be able to do that,” he said.
After hearing from Mr Walsh, councillors then went on to outline their own individual concerns.
Cllr Joe Kelly (Ind) said the council was constantly expected to “cut its cloth to suits its measure” despite its best efforts.
He asked why there was a constant deficit each year and outlined the need for the government to recognise the “dire state” of funding for local authorities.
“We as a council have always done our best to manage our budgets,” he said.
“In my view, we as a council need to reject this budget and go back to the government with the message that we will not do their dirty work for them by increasing business rates and cutting badly needed services in a city and county that needs services improved and not cut,” he said.
“Accepting the numbers as presented is the wrong thing to do. It sends the wrong message. If we’re told to jump, the answer seems to be ‘how high?’ We shouldn’t be jumping at all. We’ve done our bit.”
He said councillors shouldn’t be expected to impose the “government’s dictate”.
Cllr Mary Roche (Ind) said there was “structurally something wrong”.
“What is it that we’re doing wrong? If we have a high rates base, and high government funding, there must be some other structural issues we’re not addressing,” she said.
“Is that we have too high a staffing rate? Is it that we’re not delivering on income? Have we historically low rates in comparison to other comparable councils. If other councils that have the same rates base as we have can manage with less central funding, why can’t we?”
Echoing Cllr Kelly’s concerns, she asked if government funding for local authorities in general was too small.
A proposal was made by Cllr James Tobin (FF) to adjourn the meeting for an hour, which was seconded by Cllr John Cummins (FG).
However, Cllr Roche objected strongly to this and said it would be very inconvenient.
Cllr Tobin then proposed an adjournment of thirty minutes, which was again seconded by Cllr Cummins.
Cllr Roche proposed adjourning the meeting to another day, which was seconded by Cllr Declan Clune (SF).
“By law there is supposed to be consideration of the gender basis of this council,” she said.
“Night time does not suit me. My husband is away at sea, my children are at home alone so on a personal basis I ask that the members give the same consideration to me that I give to them.”
She added that her colleagues had “weeks” in which to discuss the budget amongst themselves.
Eighteen councillors voted in favour of the adjournment for thirty minutes, with 12 voting in favour of adjourning to a different day.
Members of the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Labour voting pact then met in private to discuss the budget.
However, after returning, it emerged that a decision had still not been reached amongst the pact.
Cllr Declan Doocey (FG) proposed an adjournment for another thirty minutes, which was seconded by Cllr John Pratt (Lab).
After returning before the full thirty minutes had elapsed, councillors said they had still not reached an agreement.
Cllr Damien Geoghegan (FG) explained that his party would not accept the budget in its present form.
“We can’t incrementally increase rates for hard pressed businesses,” he said.
His party colleague Cllr Cummins said he “fundamentally disagreed” that now was the correct time to increase rates.
“Many business owners forgo wages themselves in order to keep people in employment,” he said.
“We do need to look at rates, but not for 2017. We cannot put the fragile economy of Waterford at risk by increasing commercial rates.”
Cllr Liam Brazil (FG) said he could not land a rates increase on the people he represents in the Comeragh District, adding that such a move would have a “huge impact on rural County Waterford”.
Cllr Eamon Quinlan (FF) said a rates increase would have a “disproportionate effect” on small to medium sized enterprises and also said it would send out the “wrong signals”.
Cllr Eddie Mulligan (FF) also said that a rates increase would send out the wrong message and pointed out that many business owners are currently taking home less than the minimum wage.
“These are people that are trying to provide employment and circulate money throughout our economy,” he said.
Cllr Pat Fitzgerald (SF) said the pact “should have their act together” which prompted heated exchanges in the chamber and resulted in Mayor Adam Wyse (FF) calling the meeting to order.
“We were lambasted by these people for voting against budgets in years gone by because they were imposing austerity on the people of this county,” said Cllr Fitzgerald.
Cllr Geoghegan pointed out that Sinn Féin’s councillors “didn’t even contribute” to the budgetary discussion.
Cllr John Hearne (SF) said that the atmosphere in room was “not conducive” to further discussions and proposed that councillors dissolve the meeting and return the following week.
This proposal was seconded by Cllr Geoghegan, with Mayor Wyse then explaining that councillors would reconvene at City Hall on Tuesday December 6th at 5pm.
‘Dungarvan is just as good as the city’ – O’Donnell
WHILE most councillors main objection at last week’s budgetary meeting centred on the proposal to increase rates, one West Waterford councillor was more concerned with the location of this week’s reconvened meeting.
After a heated discussion on the 2017 budget at City Hall, during which there were fiery exchanges between members of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael in particular, a decision was made by councillors to meeting once again at City Hall on Tuesday December 6th at 5pm.
However, Cllr Seamus O’Donnell (Ind) objected vehemently to the meeting being held in Waterford City.
Cllr O’Donnell, who represents the Dungarvan-Lismore Electoral Area, said it wasn’t fair to expect West Waterford councillors to return the city once again.
“Dungarvan is just as good as the city,” he said.
“Why should we be coming down here to Waterford?”
Mayor of Waterford City & County Council Cllr Adam Wyse (FF) explained that a Statutory Budgetary Meeting had to take place in City Hall.