This summer, businesses in Dublin will again vote on whether to renew the Dublin City Business Improvement District (BID), otherwise known as DublinTown.
While the organisation and its supporters point to the work it does promoting and polishing up the city centre, others continue to question whether the obligatory levy for the district’s businesses is fair.
It represents roughly 2,500 businesses in its district, which stretches from St Stephen’s Green to Parnell Square, between Amiens Street and Capel Street on the northside, and South Great George’s Street and Dawson Street on the southside.
Every five years, those businesses – who pay the equivalent of 5 percent of their rates bills to DublinTown annually – vote on whether the company should continue to operate. DublinTown has put forward its case for renewal.
The company puts up Dublin’s Christmas lights each year, has installed additional lighting and CCTV, removed 15,720 needles from the streets last year, regularly removes graffiti from buildings, and promotes the city through advertising and events, it says.
Such activities, among others, justify DublinTown’s renewal, it argues.
But its renewal faces opposition, spearheaded by the CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI), Adrian Cummins, and independent Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn.
They argue that businesses should vote no and reject DublinTown, on the basis that the annual levy is unfair to businesses, and that it’s double taxation.
How to Opt
Cummins and the RAI take the position that the compulsory levy on businesses each year is unacceptable. “The BID scheme as it is constituted at the moment is double taxation on businesses,” he says.
DublinTown has an annual income of €3 million, and some businesses now, according to Cummins, feel they’re not getting their money’s worth for the levy they pay.
Five years ago, the Irish Hotels Federation campaigned for a no vote, while the RAI “sat on the fence”, he said. This time, they’re firmly in the no camp.
“It’s our policy within the association to reduce the cost of business to restaurants, cafés, gastro pubs and hotel restaurants,” he says.
As some on the no side see it, other agencies should be doing what DublinTown does at the moment.
Fáilte Ireland should take care of the marketing and promotion of Dublin, says Cummins. (DublinTown has a budget of €320,000 for that in 2018.)
Dublin City Council should take care of graffiti-removal and other public-realm interventions too, says Cummins.
“If BID was gone in the morning, the businesses wouldn’t see any change whatsoever, in my opinion,” says Cummins.
There is an argument that says that only Dublin City Council should provide these services to the city, says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, who has sat on the board of DublinTown since February.
There is an argument that residential rates should not have been abolished in 1977, and that rates on government properties shouldn’t have been abolished in 1982, too, he points out.
“There’s an argument that the entire Local Property Tax should come to Dublin,” he says. “All of those are valid arguments.”
“But here’s a scheme that is available to the city to make the city better,” he says. “It can only be introduced if the people who actually have to pay the levy actually vote in favour of it. They have voted in favour of it.”
To him, it makes sense to keep DublinTown around. “I’ve always thought it was a good idea that businesses in the area would come together and pool their knowledge and a few extra quid towards improving the area,” says Lacey.
“I think they have done a lot of good work, ” says Lacey. Ultimately, he says, it’s up to the businesses to decide.
Claims and Counterclaims
Some of the campaigning around the upcoming vote has veered off into other issues.
Last week on his website, Flynn said his submission to the council ahead of the plebiscite shouldn’t have been shown to DublinTown, because it was shielded by data-protection legislation. It was shared, though.
And four days after he submitted it, Flynn got a legal letter from DublinTown’s solicitors stating that his submission contained “a number of defamatory remarks”.
“It’s extremely odd that my correspondence in relation to this matter to Dublin City Council was handed over to the BID company,” Flynn wrote on his site.
But DublinTown Director of Corporate Development Anne Marie Butler says the organisation is entitled to see all the submissions.
After the four-week public consultation process, DublinTown has until the end of May to respond to each individual submission, she said.
A spokesperson at Dublin City Council Press Office said the same. “All submissions were passed to DublinTown as they must take them into consideration before proceeding to the next step in the process,” they said.
Butler says there have been around 40 submissions, the majority of which have been positive.
Despite the claims in recent weeks that more and more businesses want to opt out of DublinTown, she and the company’s operations manager, Gerard Farrell, say they have seen little evidence of that.
At the last plebiscite in 2012, 1,063 voted in favour of BID’s renewal and 511 against.
Says Farrell: “This is why we have a ballot, to make sure people are happy with the job we’ve done. Every time we’ve gone to ballot we’ve won by a large margin.”
Labour’s Lacey says that he’s never heard “a coherent case” made against BID, and that Councillor Flynn has always been opposed to it.
Lacey questioned why Flynn continues to ask for auditors’ copies of accounts, even though he has been a member of the BID board. “He’s had his opportunity to raise all these issues yet he chooses to raise them at council meetings, which, to me, seems an odd way of doing business.”
Flynn says he is 100 percent behind the no campaign. “The campaign is a series of businesses: small shops, cafés, restaurants, hairdressers, public houses, car parks,” he says.
As he sees it, BID has “become an entity that simply promotes itself”, and “the issue is that people are forced to pay a rate here, whether they like it or whether they don’t”.
Flynn argues that DublinTown isn’t transparent. “The big issue here is that people do not want to be put in a situation where their hard-pressed cash is going into a private company like BID,” he says. “They want a voluntary organisation that they can be involved in.”
Farrell of DublinTown says the organisation is transparent and democratic. “All our policies, our board, are agreed at an AGM each year. Our board is mainly made up of people elected by the businesses.”
For DublinTown to continue, more than 50 percent of its members must vote in favour of renewal in June or July (the exact date has not yet been set). The organisation has already set out to its members how it would spend its income from 2018 through to 2022 if that happens.
As they see it, let the businesses decide. “We answer to our members,” says Farrell. “Our programme of work is dictated by them.”