Saturday, 28 March 2015

‘Crisis’ as Minister slashes funding over unpaid household charges

‘The biggest crisis we 

have been in for 

many years’ – Mayor

Frontline services provided by Roscommon County Council will be significantly cut back and people in the county will suffer as a result of an immediate €1.7 million reduction in the 2012 support grant from the government. 

  That was the news given to councillors at this week’s monthly meeting of Roscommon County Council by County Manager Frank Dawson, who said that he had been informed by Environment Minister Phil Hogan that due to the non-compliance of 44% of the population of Roscommon on payment of the household charge, the cuts would be made immediately. However Mr Dawson said that no council workers would be laid off or put on short time as a result of the cuts.

  Opening the debate, Mayor Tom Crosby said that a very serious situation had developed with regard to council funding over the past week, after a circular had been sent out by Minister Hogan last Friday.

  He said that figures from the Department of the Environment show that 56% of the population in Roscommon had paid the household charge, which left 44% who have failed to comply to date. 

  “The Government have decided to penalise the local authority as a result and local services will be affected immediately – and severely too” Cllr. Crosby said. 

  “The facts are that €400,000 will be cut immediately and the rest of the €1.7 million in cuts will be made in October when the government review how much extra funding has been received through the household charge by then. 

  “Our grant from the government in 2007 was €24 million and that is down to €14 million this year. Our budget was €68 million in 2007 and it is €65 million this year, so you can see that serious savings have been made by this council. The number of staff is down by 208 in that period (2007 to present). 

  “We simply cannot take cuts of €1.7 million in the middle of the year. I am appealing to those who have not paid their household charge to do so at the earliest opportunity. This is the biggest crisis that we have been in for many years” he concluded. 

  County Manager Frank Dawson said that he had received a circular last Friday informing him that as a result of a review of the payment of the household charge, a cut of €1.744 million was being imposed on the council and that a cut of €436,000 was being imposed immediately.

  “I want to thank the people who have paid their household charge and I am asking those who have not paid to please do so as soon as they can. These cuts will have serious implications for our ability to deliver and maintain the services that we provide for the public and I have asked that my heads of departments come back to me with plans as to where we can make savings. I couldn’t emphasise enough just what a serious situation we are in at present” he said. 

  Fianna Fail Cllr. John Cummins said that the household charge issue was very badly handled by the government. “It was a disaster and a ham-fisted effort from day one. It is not possible for this council to sustain these cuts in the middle of a financial year. It was not the fault of the council that this situation arose and there should be a fair way of dealing with it. How can a county like Roscommon deal with the enormous cuts proposed here?” he asked.

  Cllr. Cummins proposed that a special meeting of the council be called at the earliest opportunity to discuss the situation and that proposal was unanimously agreed.

  Cllr. Rachel Doherty (Fianna Fail) said that the household charge was ill thought out and now Minister Hogan was engaging in a form of bullying on the matter. “There are a lot of people who simply cannot afford to pay this tax and  it’s a disgrace that Phil Hogan is putting pressure on every local authority in the country. How dare they withdraw that money from every local authority. It’s a shameful situation” she said. 

  Cllr. Michael McGreal (Fine Gael) said that the reality was that the country was broke and that the household charge and other taxes had to be collected. He also proposed that an urgent Council meeting be held to discuss the situation.

  Cllr. Paddy Kilduff (Fianna Fail) said that the situation was so serious that he couldn’t see a way out of putting council staff on short time working or there having to be lay-offs. However that was later ruled out by the County Manager.

  Cllr. Michael Mulligan (Sinn Fein) said that what Minister Hogan was engaging in was “bullyboy tactics.” He added: “This was a bad idea from the start. There was not a word about any of this last December. What is Minister Hogan doing? There has to be a way out of this rather than cut, cut, cut.”

  Cllr. John Keogh (Fianna Fail) said that the figures did not add up. He said that if there were 24,000 households in Roscommon and that 14,000 had paid, it left 10,000 that did not pay. He wanted to know why was the cut €1.7 million and not €1 million (as the household charge is €100). “It’s an attempt to penalise Roscommon County Council and the people of Roscommon. Are they trying to abolish local councils altogether?” he asked. 

  Cllr. Laurence Fallon (Independent) said that he was very annoyed with the approach being taken by the minister. “He is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is madness to tell the people who have paid that they are not going to get the services that they have been promised. The people who paid have been penalised” he said. 

  Cllr. Orla Leyden (Fianna Fail) said that she was also suspicious of the figures. “We know that the government say that they had no database of the exact number of households in the county or the country, so where does the figure of 56% come from? Rural Ireland is being hit again. I want the Fine Gael councillors on this council to go to the minister and tell him that this is grossly unfair. There is no waiver system either. Roscommon had a small rate base too, so this is all very unfair” she commented. 

  Cllr. Tony Ward (Independent) said he was shocked at the news. “We have had four years of cuts and we have had enough. We are affecting people at the bottom of the scale and the people at the top are still getting away with earning huge salaries and bonuses. There are many people who cannot afford to pay this charge. There was no effort made to facilitate old people in terms of payment or a waiver system. These cuts will have a hugely negative effect.” 

  Cllr. Eugene Murphy (Fianna Fail) said that it was very hard to formulate a budget before this news and now it will be almost impossible to know what to do. “I can’t understand the figures here either. Why are we being cut by €1.7 million in the middle of the year? This is all totally unfair. I know people who could well afford to pay this charge but they feel that Phil Hogan has behaved like a bully and people do not like being bullied. If we think we have problems this year just wait until we get to next year” he said. 

  Cllr. John Naughten (Fine Gael) said that it was an unacceptable situation and he proposed that letters should be sent out to people who had not paid the charge, asking them to comply.

  Cllr. Gerry Garvey (Fine Gael) said that there was no easy way out of the current situation. “Until the government gets some sort of a write-down of our banking debt the country will be in trouble. There is no easy way of running the country at the moment and reform is needed immediately” he said. 

  Cllr. John Murphy (Independent) said that the method of collection of the charge was crazy. “The Revenue Commissioners have been proven to be top class at collecting this type of money. Why weren’t they asked to collect this charge? It seems to me that this charge was planned on the back of an envelope. I think people should pay because there will be reduced services if they don’t, but it was all handled very badly” he commented. 

  Cllr. Paschal Fitzmaurice (Fianna Fail) said that the news was an attack on the people of Roscommon. “I strongly object that we are being asked to do the dirty work of the government. Let the Fine Gael councillors decide where these cuts are to be made. It is not fair to ask us to do it. It’s not our fault” he said. 

  Many other councillors also spoke and the key theme was the serious situation that the council now finds itself in with regard to funding.

  Concluding the debate, County Manager Frank Dawson said that the council did not have the resources to go out house to house asking people to pay the household charge. “We are operating this council with 200 less people than we did a few years ago. The people who are left working here are doing their best and are doing a great job. I want to thank the 56% who have paid but I have to also say that I am deeply disappointed with the situation as it stands.

  “There is no prospect of any staff being laid off and I want to make sure that people know that. We are spending almost €100 million per year here and we are doing our best to spread it around on the various services. 

  “Letters will be going out to people who have not paid their charge but it is hard to get a handle on everybody, what with data protection issues, etc., but the letters will be sent out very soon. 

  “I can say for certain that if this situation continues there will be serious implications for frontline services. We will be identifying cost-reduction areas very soon and will be bringing them before the council in the new few weeks” he concluded.

Issue dated: 27 JULY 2012
© Roscommon People