The calm before the storm - Councllors wait for the budget meeting to begin at County Hall, Dundalk last night.
I saw a very odd sight last night (Sunday December 2nd). Five Fine Gael Councillors sitting around a table in the Roma Café in Dundalk tucking into burgers, some really nice chips and a pot of tea.
No, they weren’t plotting a coup, just taking advantage of an hour long adjournment that Council Chief Executive Joan Martin had called during what was a very stormy and ill-tempered meeting to discuss, yet again, the €106m Council budget for 2019.
This was always going to be a difficult meeting, the very existence of the Council was at stake, if they couldn’t agree the budget by midnight Minster Eoghan Murphy would be asked to step in and appoint a commissioner to run the county.
Straight from the off Joan Martin was bombarded with question after question about clipping a few grand here, possible savings there, and many more changes to the budget which she had presented to Councillors many weeks ago and which they were now debating for the third time.
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Everyone had opinions about where savings could be made but nobody was really sure about how much needed to be saved. The figures mentioned ranged from €500K to €200K down to €70K. Confusion reigned.
Frank Godfrey wanted to know how the €250K for the Fleadh was spent; Kenneth Flood asked how much was spent on outside PR, legal and consultancy firms; Mark Deery asked if savings could be found in the Town and Village Renewal scheme. On and on it went…
You could see Joan was getting hot under the collar and this was exacerbated by the fact that for some reason she couldn’t access the Council’s computer system and the quick fire questioning was getting to her.
The crux of the matter was of course the gaping hole that reducing pay parking charges in Drogheda had left in the budget. Like the ghost of Christmas past, it was coming back to haunt us.
This necessitated either cuts to services or other streams of income so that the budget could be balanced.
Pio Smith raised the issue of the Westgate Vision for which half a million had been announced but he couldn’t see where it was coming from.
“Figures change and figures move around” was the bizarre response from the Chief Executive. But we knew what she meant.
Paul Bell raised the Fleadh’s €250K again saying that, as well as the financial grant the Fleadh had necessitated expenditure by the Council on additional street cleaning, marketing and promotion. “Were we paid for them?” he asked.
And so it went on and on. And on.
Cllr. Paul Bell was the first to complain about the way the meeting was being handled by the Chief Executive.
“When are we going to get to the stage of working together instead of this ping pong game?” he asked of Joan Martin. “I feel you are taking a combative approach” he said.
“We want to achieve a balanced budget but it is unclear to us where we can make the adjustments to the budget which has already been rejected twice.”
Joan was seeing red now. “Nobody has explained to me why the budget was rejected!” she thundered, “you talk to me of a figure of €500,000 but I don’t know where that figure came from, nobody has ever contacted me. Not one of you phoned me.”
“The phone system works both ways” was Bell’s response.
And so it went, to and fro like a fencing match, or more like a stabbing match with daggers drawn. Very few people in the room seemed to know what was being debated at this stage. It was almost a relief when Cathaoirleach Liam Reilly, who was showing signs of fatigue called for another recess of 30 minutes
Councillor Colm Markey proposed a motion which outlined areas where savings could be made from various services but also entailed a levelling of parking fees in both Drogheda and Dundalk at €1.10 per hour and that Drogheda would lose its 219 free parking spaces.
“That proposal is not valid” Joan declared. “You don’t know the implications of making those cuts. I want to put it on record that you don’t care about the consequences of your actions!”
Cathaoirleach Liam Reilly put it to a vote anyway and it ended in a 14 – 14 draw which meant he had the casting vote and he voted in favour. (Cllr. Tommy Byrne was absent)
“You have not passed a valid budget!” was Joan’s response and she was almost howling now, “this council has wilfully failed in its duty to pass a valid budget.”
Despite the fact that most people though the issue had been resolved at this stage there was plenty more debate to come.
Cllr. Colm Markey who had been doing a good job of the number crunching then came up with the idea of leaving it to the discretion of the officials to find the missing funds.
“But we’ve already had a roll call vote” piped up Paul Bell. “A democratic vote and the casting vote of the Cathaoirleach!” That’s what everyone else thought as well but they ploughed on anyway.
Joan Martin came out with her, by now familiar, refrain: “The money isn’t there!
“The decision on whether or not the vote was valid is mine alone” she asserted. “You have not presented a balanced budget, the vote was taken against my advice.”
And we were off again. Kevin Callan who instigated the whole idea of reducing parking payments in Drogheda many months ago, asked whether or not the information in the documents given to Councillors was inaccurate and it turned out that some of it was and apologies were expressed.
After much more mind boggling financial argument the Chief Executive outlined areas where savings could be made which included €46k from the rates incentive scheme, €25k from the Shop front grants, €15k from the small business incentive scheme, €14K from the rates rebate schemes and others.
This new set of proposals, along with the increase in parking charges to €1.10 in both Drogheda and Dundalk and the removal of the 219 free parking spaces in Drogheda would it seems be enough to get the budget over the line.
The matter was put to another vote and once again it resulted in a 14 -14 draw. This time however the Cathaoirleach Liam Reilly, who lives in Dundalk, voted in favour.
Which meant of course that, after weeks of discussion and four and a half hours of at times bad tempered argument last night, we could all go home to mull over the consequences.
As I was driving back to Drogheda along the M1 and came in sight of the wonderful Mary McAleese bridge the thought crossed my mind about how the tolls collected there were such a missed opportunity. Millions every year being given to a private entity when our local government sector is being starved of funds.
This article was written by Andy Spearman