‘Bizarre and incredible’, says Councillor
Sligo News File Online
Staggering under the pressure of its multimillion mountain of debt, Sligo County Council has added still more millions of euro to its financial burden.
Following the recommendation of Chief Executive, Ciaran Hayes, members voted on Monday to take on liabilities of the IWAK regional airport, a debt of €9 million which the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition has refused to service, and which, with added bank charges and fees, will see Sligo put up €2 million – if not more – for its part in the 30 year deal.
This is the same government that wrote off millions on millions of the debts run up by Shannon Airport, a rival of Knock. A virtual pot of gold in the form of other concessions was also granted to the southern-based operation.
Why, knowing of its disastrous financial state, the government included Sligo as a potential source to be used to rescue an airport they themselves have refused to back clearly reflects contempt for the people of the county.
Other local authorities involved in the so-called investment deal are clearly financially better placed than Sligo to assume the role of a Knock life saver, but why should even they be prevailed upon to shoulder what should be the government’s responsibility to handle liabilities of the airport?
If the government could do it for Shannon, why have they turned their back on Knock where the debts are substantially less?
By making local authorities accountable for the settlement of Knock’s prevailing indebtedness, councillors who have voted through the government designed deal have in effect also made the debt the responsibility of the people they represent. In Sligo’s case, is not known what, down the road, local hard pressed families will find themselves confronted in terms of taxes, charges, fees – and possibly a new local tax regime – to pay off the council’s rocketing debt load.
Sligo is currently up to the neck in a long-term debt of €120 million. The cumulative debt pile has accelerated to where it is now about €26 million. Millions of euro more remain to be settled in relation to the Supreme Court ruling against the council over rights of way through the Lissadell Estate in the north of the county. The council is also under directions to build a €10 million budget surplus over the next ten years. However, not once were the people of the county invited to participate before the decision to embrace the airport’s debt was taken, although it is on their shoulders the cost of the council’s towering debt is likely to be eventually dropped in one form or another.
It also will not have gone unnoticed that the deeply troubled state of its finances led to the Council approaching the Department of the Environment for a €15 million bailout to keep it afloat. Yet, at the same time, here it is itself bailing out debts of the IWAK international airport.
To date, the massive scale of the council’s debt has already cost the county dearly with major staff layoffs or relocation of workers to other areas, all of it destined to seriously retard the provision of previously available services to the public. The cutback in library services stands as an example. Just last year Fianna Fail and Fine Gael also voted against a proposed modest cut in the tax on the family home, declaring the council couldn’t afford the relatively small sum involved.
The dizzying heights to which the debts have now been taken with the decision to ‘invest’ in the airport will undoubtedly alarm many. The value of the stake in the airport will only be somewhere in the region of just a few percent, an undertaking for which it is expected a loan, and all that entails, will have to be raised.
It looks as well that in spite of its investment or stake, the council’s influence in decisions affecting the operations and future of the airport will be minimal.
Names of the councillors who supported the deal:
Michael Clarke (Ind), Margaret Gormley (Ind), Marie Casserly (Ind), Joe Queenan (FF), Eamon Scanlon (FF), Tommie MacSharry (FF), Seamus Kilgannon (FF), Paul Taylor (FF), Martin Baker (FF) Rosaleen O’Grady (FF), Dara Mulvey (FG), Hubert Keaney (FG) and Sinead Maguire (FG)
Councillors who voted against were:
Declan Bree (Ind), Seamus O’Boyle (PFP), Sean MacManus (SF) and Thomas Healy (SF)
Addressing the meeting ahead of the vote, Cllr. Bree told councillors he found the proposal to commit funding to Knock “bizarre and incredible.”
He said, “I believe that Knock Airport is a very important part of Ireland’s transport infrastructure. It is our fourth international airport after Dublin, Shannon and Cork, and like Dublin, Shannon and Cork it should receive its funding from central government and the Department of Transport and Tourism.
“While I understand that Knock Airport has a current debt of €9 million I would point out that Sligo County Council is not responsible for the airport’s debt and Sligo County Council has no statutory responsibility for Knock Airport.
“It has also come to my attention that Mayo County Council collects €150,000 in rates from Knock Airport every year – and at the same time they expect Sligo County Council to contribute €55,000 a year to the airport.
“The Taoiseach Mr Kenny represents Mayo in the Dail and the least one could expect from him is to ensure that the necessary funding is provided to Knock Airport to allow it develop.
“If Sligo County Council had money in the bank and a surplus of funds there might be some justification for paying off Knock’s debts.
“However, this council does not have any spare cash. This Council is on the verge of bankruptcy. The last report we received indicated that our long-term debt was approx €120 million while our revenue debt is now standing at over €26 million.
“And to make matters works our revenue deficit and our debt continues to grow. Sligo County Council is the only council in the entire country where the revenue debt has consistently increased year after year.
“Sligo County Council is up to it’s eyes in debt. In recent years, we have been described as “a financial basket case”. We don’t have adequate funds for roads, for libraries, for services or for voluntary bodies. We have requested the department of the Environment to provide us with a bailout of €15 million and now at the same time we have the Chief Executive recommending that we commit this Council to giving €1.6 million to Knock Airport.
“I find it bizarre and incredible.”