Councillors fail to agree budget for 2012 – how the day unfolded

Donegal County Councillors failed to reach agreement on the council’s revenue budget for 2012. It proved an eventful day with an unprecedented disruption to the meeting, numerous adjournments and claim and counterclaim as to why agreement could not be reached. Below is how the days proceedings unfolded.
Today’s budget meeting began at 10.30am with a break for lunch scheduled at 1 o’clock. The consensus in Lifford this morning is that it is going to be a long day. In fact it is likely that this meeting could be adjourned to allow for further negotiations with the budget to be agreed in January.
Mayor Noel McBride opened the meeting with a positive message. He says we are facing in to a difficult and challenging year but if people remain positive, then things will improve. He says there are positives out there, not least the recent quotas secured for the fishing industry. Mayor McBride also said he was optimistic on inward investment in the county in the coming year and that meetings are ongoing to that end.
At around 10.40 County Manager Seamus Neely takes to his feet. Outlines how last years cold weather, gorse fires later in the year and flooding put strain on the council’s resources. These were costs that, he says, could not have been legislated for. With that said, the council starts 2012 with a clean slate – that is, no deficit from 2011 is being carried forwards.
The manager has been outlining how he and his team have prepared for budget 2012 with maximising delivery on care responsibilities, delivering further efficiencies, sustaining affordability and achieving compliance amongst them.
Manager says he probably needed to increase commercial rates but didn’t and goes on to highlight the importance of working with business to help competitiveness and maximise income.
10.50 and the manager moves on to highlight the key considerations of budget 2012. These include : Absorbing funding gap of 11 million euro – outlines the true impact this may have. Explains to councilors, who have made representations for funding for smaller projects, this is the equivalent to funding 550 small projects to the tune of 20,000.  This is effectively the manager flagging the fact that the ‘horses trading’ that goes on ahead of a budget being agreed will be more difficult this year.
The manager highlights an interesting statistic – Donegal County Council has 102 thousand euro per day less to work with in 2012 compared to 2007. Seamus Neely says he had no choice but to cut spending on Donegal’s roads next year by 1,000,000 – this is one of the major issues that Fianna Fail has with the draft budget.
Out of 148 million euro that the Council has to spend, 120 million is fixed costs – in reality, the county manager points out, only around 5 million euro is  ‘discretionary’.
Almost 63 million euro of the council Revenue Budget of 148 million will be payed on wages alone next year – this is marginally up on last year  – 8 million less than 2008.
County Manager says we have good roads and water infrastructure in Donegal.
Director of services, Gary Martin, has taken to his feet with an extensive  breakdown of how the council will spend its money next year – this also includes how the council can operate in a more cost effective away down to lights being switched off in office that are not being used.
Liam Ward,Director of Housing is now going through the figures as to how it will effect his department in the coming year – mostly relating to cuts which have already been outlined for the most part in previous presentations.
‘Cant Pay Wont Pay’ protesters have moved to a window of the room in which the budget meeting is taking place -Mr Ward’s address stalled as councilors complain of not being able to hear him. Protesters have now taken to bashing the windows.  Not sure what this achieves.

The budget meeting has been adjourned for a lunch break.
Council’s budget meeting resumes a 3pm. There is rumblings that the passing of the budget is becoming less likely today. Following on from the earlier protest which disrupted the meetings. At least one Councilor claims to have been physically assaulted by a protester in the form of a blow to the ribs. At least two other councillors claim to have been verbally assaulted on a personal level.
Party and grouping whips to now have there say on the draft budget: First up Councillor Ciaran Brogan for Fianna Fail, he acknowledges huge challenges ahead. He says Fianna Fail has considered the budget book and has huge concerns. Highlights that spending on loans and staff costs are so high that the amount of money left to spend is very scarce.
Fianna Fail’s main concern is roads, Councillor Brogan says that while good work on the roads has been done in the past, there are roads in the county in a very poor state. With this in mind, Fianna Fail is strongly against a funding cut of 1,000,0000 by the council. Housing cuts and grants for those most in need are also a major concern. Pubic are concerned about the introduction of parking charges and an increase in water charges. Councillor Brogan says it is a ‘disgrace’ that no provision for tourism is contained in the budget book.
He adds that the council  may have decentralized offices across Donegal, but no staff to run them. He says the service being provided does not match the publics needs. Councillor Brogan concludes that Fianna Fail will NOT be supporting the budget book in its current form.
Barry O’Neill for Fine Gael says council is in a difficult place.  Says the amount of businesses struggling in the county is a cause for concern, as a result rate collection down significantly (1.5 million in 2012). Says council has to budget with less money and less staff describing it as an incredible challenge. O’Neill says councillors have an obligation to pass the budget by 6pm this evening.
Fine Gael says it will do all it can to lobby the government to make up the 1million euro cut in funding for roads (This is sure to see a major locking of horns between FG and FF on this key issues – stances are a mile apart) Councillor O’Neill says his party also has an issue with the lack of funding for tourism in the budget book. (7K put aside for tourism promotion).
Concerns also expressed over a lack of financial support for the Arts in the county, suggests that an allocation of 100k to An Grianan should be spread across the county. Fine Gael also opposed to the introduction of car parking charges, speech also used to highlight concerns over the lack of legislation governing casual traders suggesting it is having a major negative impact on rate paying businesses. Fine Gael proposals are concentrated on addressing the issue of unfinished estates, community assist programme restored to allow for the repair of roads, insists on a value for money committee be established to ensure the council gets best value for money ( for example, in awarding contracts). That the councillors fund be maintained at its current level. Calls for half hour of free parking be permitted on the streets of town’s that already have charges.  Fine Gael want an island’s fund to recognise the culture, tourism and everything else the islands offer. (suggests 20k). The party wants Donegal County Council to come up with the shortfall in funding for Bucnrana Leisure Center (20k). Calls for an urgent meeting with Failte Ireland Northwest to secure a representation on its board.
Fine Gael calls on the council to introduce a 12 months commercial rate free period within towns, providing they don’t compete with existing businesses and meet a number of other criteria.
Councillor Mick Quinn for Sinn Fein says the Manager has been given the challenge of making a silk purse out of a sows ear due to a cut in government funding. Says the party cannot take the budget in isolation as it sets out the stall for subsequent years. Concern over the 2% VAT rate increase, says this will lead to business closures and as a result see a fall in the council’s income through rates. Councillor Quinn says septic tank charges and the household will reduce spending power in the economy once again affecting businesses.
Sinn Fein also concerned about unfinished estates, says the council faces costs in relation to mechanical plants etc and says there will be revenue implications for the council which have not been budgeted for.
Sinn Fein says unless more funding comes from central government then this budget should not be passed. Councillor Quinn says his party is not taking this stance with ease and is calling on Fine Gael to impress on Minister Phil Hogan the need for Donegal to be awarded more funding.
Councillor Frank McBrearty for Labour says they have major issues. Firstly he slams protesters who took over the chamber earlier, claiming they deflect from the work of the council and the crisis Donegal and the country is in.  He says that party’s should sit down together and try and come up with an agreement that would see the budget passed. He says the government must not be given control to enforce a budget for Donegal. Labour concerned about the reduction in roads maintenance, Frank McBrearty says that is labour’s key concern. He adds that cuts to the DFI fund and the councillors development fund will have a major negative impact.  Labour against proposed increase in commercial water charges.
Again calls for the meeting to be adjourned so parties can come together and try and agree the budget but admits it will be very difficult.  Councillor McBrearty says he is against the household and septic tank charges but will pay them, says he is hopeful Labour nationally will ensure those that can’t pay won’t have too. Labour lends its support to Fine Gael calls for an island fund. Labour also has an issue with the level of funding for An Grainan Theatre this year, says the Balor Theatre is very much underfunded. Councillor McBrearty says Letterkenny should ‘pay for their own problems’.
McBrearty says Labour is being reasonable in relation to the budget, defends Council staff pay of 63 million euro per year – says it is to the county’s benefit. He says rate cuts would only suit big business.
Independent Councillor Ian McGarvey is also concerned at reduction in funding for roads says some roads across the county are in a serious state of disrepair. Says one pothole was measured at 2.5 feet deep. Concerns over the 240k reduction in DFI fund and again the councillor’s fund.
Says it is important that Donegal County Council uses MEP’s and national party members to attract funding to the county from other previously untapped sources. Councillor McGarvey questions why VEC pensions are paid by government while council staff pensions are paid by the council (over 8million in 2012), he says the council should look to recoup that. He calls for a 3% reduction in commercial rates , accepts that big businesses benefit the most but suggests a rising tide lifts all boats.
Councillor McGarvey also concerned at the lack of funding set aside for tourism.  Particular concern for the elderly and wants the council to look at the situation.  America, China and Europe have all been referenced.
Councillor McGarvey says people in the North should be encouraged to shop and stay in Donegal, says efforts should be made in that regard -concludes by saying that councillors should work together and not play political games and agree a budget.
Meeting adjourned for chinwags on budget
Meeting reconvenes at 5.15pm, however it is quickly adjourned until 5.45pm to facilitate further discussion, indications would be that an agreement this evening is unlikely.
At different stages this evening speculation has been that the budget would be passed, then not and finally it looks likely that the meeting will be adjourned until January the 4th without agreement. The way the numbers break down, it would appear that Sinn  Fein held the key and the party only backed Fianna Fail for an adjournment rather than a rejection of the budget.
I may be wrong, we have another 5 minute adjournment……
Fine Gael party proposes to adopt the budget with amendments which would establish a 20K fund for the islands and 20k for Buncrana Leisure Centre leaving 500,000in the DFI fund.  Councillor’s development  fund of  to stand at 145,000. The business support fund which was proposed to be scrapped.
Fianna Fail calls for the meeting to be adjourned until the 4th of January to allow for efforts to be made to source additional funding – Sinn Fein backs Fianna Fails proposals.
Fine Gael proposal:
Fianna Fail proposal
Didn’t happen – Fine Gael withdrew its motion. Councillor Barry O’Neill added that he is disappointed that some parties had little preparation done and had no proposals. He says the message it sent to the public is that councillors do not know what’s going on. Councillor O’Neil seems to indicate that Fianna Fail pulled a stroke in deferring a decision.
Council will meet again now on the 10th of January. That is the last day the budget can be adopted and is seen as a risky maneuver by councilors.