Budget could end service charges divisions
Mixed results on estimate votes
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Councils across the 26 Counties were voting on spending estimates this week for the next financial year, and across them all the issue of service charges loomed. Sinn Féin councillors were involved in key debates and votes in Dublin, Sligo, Cork and Kerry. In many councils it was a simple case of straightforward opposition to the charges, but on Sligo Corporation, Sinn Féin councillors confronting the opportunism and two-faced attitude of Fine Gael and Labour councilors were forced into taking some very hard decisions in favour of the greater common good.
In South Dublin Council, service charges had been built into the County Manager's estimates, but as cross party opposition was hardening against the charges, another £4.5 million that had been overlooked was suddenly found and this council will not levy service charges next year.
Dublin Corporation adjourned its service charges debate when it was clear that there was no cross-party support for including service charges in the estimates. This local authority is one of the few in the 26 Counties that has never adopted service charges.
The leader of the Sinn Féin group on the council, Christy Burke, told An Phoblacht that the party offered a number of alternatives to the city manager on where extra income could be found. Burke said ``There are dozens of substantial state buildings in the corporation area who don't pay rates as well as hundreds of city B&Bs and private landlords. All of these benefit from council services yet pay nothing.
Sinn Féin also raised the issue of using the huge amount of funds flowing from clamping and tow-away charges and asked that these sources of revenue be investigated. Many of these issues were also raised by the independent grouping on the corporation.
In Cork, the estimates and service charges were voted through by the corporation. The meeting had to be halted three times because of protests by the Householders Against Service Charges group. Eventually, the public galleries were cleared before the meeting could begin.
Sinn Féin's Jonathon O'Brien argued against the charges, particularly the 17% increase built into the estimates. He proposed that commercial rates be increased to the ceiling of 9% allowed by Environment Minister Noel Dempsey. In the end, the council only increased commercial rates by 7%. In Kerry County Council and Tralee UDC, Sinn Féin also voted against the service charges.
It was in Sligo Corporation that Sinn Féin had a much more difficult task. The Fine Gael and Labour grouping who had in the past supported and imposed service charges were this time opposing them in an opportunist attempt to force Sinn Féin, who hold the Mayoral seat in the council, into accepting service charges or see the council dissolved.
Sinn Féin's three councillors voted for the estimates including a service charge, but managed to have the charge reduced for 1,200 households and completely waived for 500 more in the town as well as ensuring that the refuse services were not privatised.
Sligo Mayor and Sinn Féin councillor Sean MacManus explained the decision by saying: ``In an effort to avert this ruinous situation (abolition of the corporation), with increased charges, job losses and downgrading of services, Sinn Féin set about obtaining the best possible deal within the constraints of the budget available. We have been successful on a number of fronts. We have safeguarded the service provided and the jobs created by that service. We negotiated a reduction of over 20% in the increase sought and most importantly we have successfully retained the waiver system for over 1,200 less wealthy households. In addition to that my colleagues Arthur Gibbons and Chris MacManus have secured conditions ensuring that all old age pensioners, living alone who qualify for a waiver will not have to pay any charge for their bin collection.
``All of these are positive elements and clearly show that Sinn Féin is prepared to take responsible decisions and to give positive leadership to the people of Sligo. Our actions are in stark contrast to those councillors who would drag down our city and who insist on sending out negative messages''.
The national media has given little space to the service charges debates or to explain why local authorities are being put in a situation of imposing double taxation when the exchequer is awash with money. The blame must lie at the Department of the Environment and Minister Noel Dempsey. His electoral reform bill is in tatters, as is the new Local Government Bill after a series of u-turns. The 26-County waste management policy is also in disarray and this is the government department that would have been running Sligo Corporation and others if they had been dissolved.
Next month's budget is a perfect opportunity to resolve the service charges issue once and for all. Are Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats willing to face up to their responsibilities?