“None of the staff in the organisation work full-time anymore because we have never recovered,” says Sian Muldowney.
The Inner City Organisations Network (ICON), which works on issues such as addiction, education and employment in the north-east inner-city, is still feeling the effects of council budget cuts from the last recession, Muldowney says.
“Our main source of funding at that time was through the local community development programme. That was cut by 43 percent,” says Muldowney, coordinator at ICON.
According to Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, there are many similar examples of cuts during the last recession.
Cuts to youth services, drug task forces, community development programmes, and other programmes meant to help disadvantaged communities, “where the funding was cut and has yet to be reinstated”, he says.
It’s unclear if the city will face more budget cuts as the council’s Covid-19-related costs rise, and its revenues fall. Whether or not that happens, some are calling for future budgets to be made through a process known as “equity budgeting”.
The idea, which some other cities – such as Toronto – use, is to be constantly asking during the budgeting process how proposed changes would affect existing inequalities.
Always keeping an eye on whether this method of increasing revenue, or that programme cut, is likely to increase economic, gender, or other inequalities.
It is unclear exactly how Dublin City Council’s budget for this year will be changed by Covid-19.
Roughly one-third of the council’s budget comes from grants from the central government, while two-thirds is made up of money from commercial rates, services, social tenants’ rent and other streams.
Rates paid by businesses to the council have sunk since the start of the pandemic lockdown.
Back in April, councillors were thinking there could be a roughly €166 million hole in this year’s €1.026 billion budget – mostly because of a loss of rates.
Dublin City Council and the Department of Housing are in talks about how to plug that gap, and cover the costs of any extra services during the pandemic. Council chief Owen Keegan has said he thinks that central government will stump up the money that councils need. But some councillors are still wary about the possible need for cuts, or budget changes.
Inequity in the Past
In the previous recession, the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities in Dublin were further disadvantaged by “funding cuts and decisions being made to adversely affect them”, Social Democrats Councillor Tara Deacy said in a question to council management for Monday’s meeting.
This time around, Deacy asked council managers to prioritise disadvantaged communities, “and to make sure they do not bear the brunt of this recession again”.
“There’s no meat left on the bones,” Deacy said, by phone recently.
As a start, Deacy says she had asked the council officials if they could look at this equity budgeting for the discretionary fund – a fund distributed by councillors within their areas – and take data from the Central Statistics Office, or Pobal into account for that.
Officials said they would look at that next time discussions for that fund come around. “I’ll have to battle that again in August,” says Deacy.
But there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for doing that with the wider council budget, she says.
Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor, says that communities like Darndale, Finglas, Ballymun, Cherry Orchard have been worst-affected by cuts over the years: “Some of those communities have not come out of the austerity from 2008 to 2014.”
However, some councillors say they feel it’s too early to be talking about cuts.
“I don’t accept that it is set in concrete that we will have to make budgetary adjustments either this year or next year,” says Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan.
“We shouldn’t even be talking about budget cuts that hopefully shouldn’t have to be made,” he says.
His party colleague Councillor Ray McAdam said similar.
Councillors need to understand the cost of the pandemic to the council, and how much of it can be reclaimed from the government.
“It’s wrong to even speculate on what sort of cuts may be coming without actually knowing the full facts,” McAdam said.
“In terms of coming forward with a budget for 2021, you’re talking about July or September before you start getting into the nitty-gritty,” he said.
Making an Equitable Budget
If the council is eventually forced to make cuts, they shouldn’t hurt the most vulnerable, say Muldowney, Doolan and Deacy.
“Any policy that is made in response to Covid-19 has to be equality and poverty-proofed,” says Muldowney, the coordinator at ICON. This means that the council should not cut community projects, she says.
The council should base decisions on cuts on a deprivation index, says Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor.
“Areas like the Cherry Orchard and Darndale, they will all rank high on it,” Doolan says. And so those are places where money should be going, not being cut from.
In Toronto, “All City departments are required to prepare equity impact statements to accompany their budget proposals,” says Joanna Duarte Laudon, policy development officer in the city of Toronto.
Staff have access to training opportunities to help them learn about equity impact analysis, Laudon says.
“It ensures greater consistency between a government’s financial goals and social commitments and informs decision-making to maximize the use of city resources to reduce inequities in the city,” Laudon said.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council did not directly answer queries about whether the council does any kind of equity review of its budget.
“Decisions in regard to the programme expenditure of the area fund are subject to consultation between the area executive and local councillors,” they said.
The priorities of each of the council’s administrative areas are decided by the area executive and the local councillors, they said.
Was there ever any analysis done on the impacts of cuts to the council budget and services after the last recession and the impact that had on inequality?
“Every effort is made to continue with the appropriate levels of service to high priority services and such decisions are mindful of the impacts on vulnerable people and groups,” they said.