How the vast majority of this coming year’s €803 million council budget will be spent was sewn up long before Monday night’s budget meeting. Apart from, it seems, €1 million which became available and was divvied up at the last minute.
As the meeting kicked off, Fine Gael councillor Kieran Binchy switched on his microphone and raised the night’s main point of political theatre: “How come some groups know about this €1 million being available? It seems like €1 million has been found down the back of a couch.”
For the main chunk of the budget, there were few changes proposed.
The headline figure was the increase in the amount to be spent in 2016 on homeless services. In 2015, homeless services were allocated €59 million, but it’s expected that the real spend will be nearer €70.5 million by year’s end. Next year, the budget for homeless services is €91 million.
Other areas of increased spending include: an addition €1 million for footpath improvements, €2 million in additional funding for local road maintenance, and €1.4 million for traffic management improvements.
A Status Quo Budget
It isn’t exactly a revolutionary budget. Commercial rates will stay at the same level, as will the vacancy refund rate – how much of your rates you get back if your unit is vacant.
It’s good that it’s stable, said Sinn Fein councillor Seamas McGrattan on Tuesday. “You’re coming through a period of austerity budgets from national government, there’s no rent increase for tenants, there’s no hike in anything, there’s no reduction in services.”
“People might say its not progressive but the progressive part to the budget is you’re giving people back 15 percent of the local property tax,” he said. “We knew by giving the money back it was going to constrain the money to be spent in the budget, But that was the decision we made.”
Back in September, at the vote to set the local property tax, not all councillors agreed that it was a progressive measure when, down the line, they’d have to justify any lack of services.
“I simply can’t look my constituents in the eye and say, when they’re looking for senior citizen services, when they’re look for a playground in the park, when they’re looking for traffic cameras in a 30 km zone, I can’t look at them in the eye and say I voted for a 15 percent cut,” said Green Party councillor Ciaran Cuffe at the time.
A Progressive Proposal From Fianna Fail?
One option suggested by Fianna Fail group leader Paul McAuliffe at Monday night’s budget meeting was that the councillors decrease the vacancy refund rate. At the moment, owners of vacant property can get 50 percent of their rates bill refunded.
Fianna Fail suggested that be reduced to 45 percent. The logic is that this would further disincentivise vacant units.
However, McGrattan said he wasn’t convinced that change would bring in more money for the council.
“We’re not getting that money in a lot of cases anyway, because it’s derelict, the companies in a lot of cases are gone, they’re finished,” he said. In some cases, it’s big developers sitting on land but in other cases it isn’t. “There’s no guarantee that money would come in.”
The Last-Minute Million
The other motion, of course, was to divvy up the additional €1 million that had been found, apparently, late on Friday night.
It’s always handy to find an extra million like that, at the last minute, to smooth over any issues, and allow you to sprinkle a few hundred thousand here and there.
In the council, Sinn Fein, Labour, the Green Party and some independents, form the largest (loose) coalition, working together on budget issues.
Councillors who aren’t part of this grouping, it seems, weren’t told about the magical million until Monday’s budget meeting. So they were unable to offer their views on how it should be spent.
They were incensed.
How To Spend It
The extra million came from a “pensions reduction retention”. Should independent councillor Ruiri McGinley, chair of the finance committee, have told all the councillors about it?
“Why should I?” he said on Tuesday. “Whoever is in the controlling position in the council, their motions matter, because they’re going to be carried.”
People Before Profit, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and some other independents aren’t part of the block that had agreed to agree on and vote the budget through. So, by McGinley’s logic, their motions wouldn’t have carried anyway, and there was no point in getting them involved.
But People Before Profit’s Tina McVeigh said they should all, at least, have been working off the same figures. She would have liked to put forward a case to use that money to help some swimming pools remain open to the public more.
In the end, €100,000 went to a window-repair scheme, €300,000 to the traffic-advisory group, €150,000 to combat dog fouling, and the rest to prevent any increase in waste-management charges for tenants in flat complexes.
The Green Party was pushing for more money for footpaths and the anti-dog-fouling blitz, so they were delighted that they got the nod, said Green Party leader Ciaran Cuffe.
“It often can sound quite trivial when we’re in the middle of a housing crisis,” he said, “but it’s a very real issue for older people and for young people to have decent clean footpaths.”
Faltering Revenue Streams
In some areas, Dublin City Council has found it has less money coming in. The revaluation of commercial properties has hit rates, which have fallen from €335.8 million to €320.3 million, and led to a loss of funding since 2014 of €27.3 million.
“Rates are down and it is a key concern for this council in terms of trends,” said Kathy Quinn, Dublin City Council’s head of finance.
McAuliffe says that’ll need to be addressed.
“Whichever party is in power after the next election,” he said, “we need to seriously examine how we fund local government and how we move forward.”