Million euro per year budget surplus proposed as financial plan.

Sligo News File Online.

Pressure is growing on Sligo County Council to shrink its activities in order to pay down a massive multimillion euro legacy debt.

Though services have already been scaled back and staffing levels reduced by more than a third, it seems that Coalition Labour minister, Alan Kelly wants still more cuts, or cost containment, something which it appears CEO, Ciaran Hayes has not ruled out.

It is being denied that abolition of the council has been threatened if members fail to deliver up a financial plan to address the sweeping deficit by next Monday, 24 November 2014. According to a press release, the plan “is to contain details as to how the council will return a surplus on its revenue account that can be put towards running down the long-term debt over a 10 year period.” A budget surplus of €1 million per year over the next ten years is being demanded.

During a debate in the Senate, Senator Susan O’Keeffe (Labour) stated “I know the Minister is not intent on abolishing Sligo County Council…”

However, O’Keeffe and Fine Gael Senators Imelda Henry and Michael Comiskey later voted against an amendment proposed by Senator Marc MacSharry (Fianna Fail) seeking “a debate with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on reports that he intends to abolish Sligo County Council…”
Concerns are now growing that the people of the county may be forced to pick up the bill for the legacy debt under a regime of councillor agreed non-statutory and “discretionary” charges or fees as well as service cut backs, this despite the fact the debt in the main was run up, approved or came about as a result of decisions
of  elected members of previous councils.

An issue is particular is the legal bill of millions of euro arising out of a judgment of the Supreme Court on a council decision regarding rights of way through the historic Lissadell Estate.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny has ruled out a government bailout for the council.

It is not apparent that people will be prepared to take responsibility for a debt in the making of which they had no hand, act or part, and about which there was no consultation with them.

Senate Leader Maurice Cummins has stated “it is the elected members themselves who have direct responsibility in law for all reserved functions of the authority, which include adopting an annual budget and authorising borrowing. They are democratically
accountable for all expenditure by the local authority.”

Does this, therefore, mean accountability for the legacy debt rests with councillors, and that those who sanctioned the expenditure under various headings must pay for it?

“It must be pointed out,” said Senator Cummins, “that it is a reserved function of the members themselves to deal with the budgetary process. That is something forgotten at times by members.”

Proposed measures for 2015 include the introduction of an €150 charge for call  outs to chimney fires and €400 per hour per fire brigade station for other domestic fires or incidents.

It also looks that there are proposals aimed at securing from members of the public full cost recovery for services provided by the council. This, however, does not include statutory charges, such as those for certain planning services and other statutory functions,
which the council is legally prevented from increasing.

The commercial rate may be widened to take in among other facilities some sports clubs, while this year or next property tax may also be increased. It will be recalled that just a few months ago, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael joined in voting against a proposal to reduce the local property tax on family homes in the county by 15%. Sligo currently has one of the highest levels of home property tax rates in the country.

Though not specifically identified in the Estimates, the council may move to make communities responsible for maintenance of local public roads. A scheme to this end was launched by the environment minister, Kelly.

It will not have escaped people that the council has transferred, or is the process of turning over, state of the art water and sewerage treatment infrastructure to Irish Water. Worth millions of euro, way more in fact than would cover the total of the prevailing
multimillion euro legacy debt, it defies understanding that compensation to the value of the assets has not been awarded to the debt-ridden council or communities from which locally paid for group water schemes were removed.