COUNCIL FACES STARK CHOICE – Agree budget or be disbanded

Mallow Town Council is to meet next Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to agree a budget for 2012, after a four-and-a-half hour meeting on Monday failed to solve a dispute over the use of the proposed €100 household charge to fund local government. The deadline to adopt a budget is next Friday, 13th January, and if agreement is not reached by that date the likelihood is that the council will be abolished and an administrator appointed to run local matters.

At Monday’s meeting all programmes were discussed in detail, after which Cllr. Noel O’Connor proposed the adoption of the estimates. He was supported by Cllr. Richard Dempsey, but Cllr. Willie O’Regan in a counter-proposal called on the minister to change a paragraph in the Budget which states that local government will in future be funded from proceeds of the proposed €100 household charge. Cllr. O’Regan was supported by fellow Sinn Féin Cllr. Johnny Bottles Griffin and the four Labour councillors, and with the budget looking likely to be voted down by six votes to three it was decided to defer a decision till next week.

Speaking yesterday, Cllr. O’Connor was critical of the Sinn Féin and Labour opposition, saying that the budget was a very positive document, and adding that the household charge was a national issue. “Our job is to balance the budget, and if people have an issue with the household charge they have plenty [of] ways to protest,” he said. “The Town Hall and the estimates meeting is not the place to deal with this matter. I’m totally disappointed that after being presented with a well balanced budget people decide to vote against it, not on [the issue of] the estimates but on a national issue. I can’t understand why people would jeopardise the future of the council. If we took a principled stand on everything we’d never do anything.” Cllr. O’Connor was supported by Cllr. Dempsey, who said that the budget had lots of positives such as an unchanged business rate, and funding for the Tidy Towns, Mallow River Rescue, Mallow Development Partnership and other projects. He also revealed that there was a proposal to put €20,000 into an urban painting scheme. “The €100 [household charge] is a national issue and could be dealt with in another forum. If we fail to agree next week, the admin-istrator could bring in another budget altogether; and the people of the town won’t be happy with us if we bring in an administrator. We were elected to run the town,” he said.

Cllr. O’Regan said he objected to the estimates on the basis of the paragraph which stated that the exchequer contribution to local government would be replaced by the €100 household charge.

“If implemented, how much would be collected? People will not pay. The government is trying to scaremonger people, saying that if you don’t agree you won’t have services in your town,” he claimed. “I have asked the manager to go back to the department and ask that they remove this paragraph and not to use it to back the local authority into a corner.” The councillor also criticised the two local TDs, saying that Labour’s Seán Sherlock and Fine Gael’s Tom Barry had supported the €100 household charge in the Dáil.

Cllr. Jerry Mullally added his opposition to the use of the household charge to fund local government services, asking what would happen if takings did not match expectations. “This is not a fair charge and we have no idea how many households are eligible. It needs a lot of clarification before I would support it,” he said. He also said that the four Labour councillors would convene before next Wednesday’s meeting to discuss how to proceed.

Mayor Dan Joe Fitzgerald said he was in support of the budget, pointing out that it had many positives for the town. He pointed out that the business rate of €57.88 was the lowest in the county and that if the manager had to take out the local government funding element the rate could rise as high as €88, which would place an intolerable burden on businesses.

Cllr. James Kennedy could not be contacted for a comment prior to going to print.