Louth coun­cil­lors pass 2019 bud­get fol­low­ing a marathon meet­ing

The Argus - - FRONT PAGE - By MAR­GARET RODDY

IT took the cast­ing vote of the chair­man af­ter three long meet­ings to pass Louth County Coun­cil’s bud­get for 2019.

As the ad­journed meet­ing on Sun­day lit­er­ally ap­proached the eleventh hour, and the prospect of Min­is­ter Eoghan Mur­phy be­ing in­formed that they hadn’t ful­filled their statu­tory du­ties by mid­night, the coun­cil­lors fi­nally passed an amended bud­get.

It paves the way for a hike in pay park­ing, which in­creases to €1.10 an hour in Dundalk and Drogheda, and the in­tro­duc­tion of an all day fee of €1 in Drogheda’s long stay car parks, while the rate for Dundalk’s long stay car parks re­mains at €2.

Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Joan Martin had sought a €1.20 an hour pay park­ing in both Dundalk and Drogheda and re-in­tro­duc­tion of a €1 charge for Drogheda’s long stay car parks in the draft bud­get but this was re­jected by coun­cil­lors.

They then had to find €200,000 to fill the gap and they did so by mak­ing cuts across a num­ber of ar­eas, in­clud­ing the En­ter­prise Fund, the Busi­ness In­cen­tive Schemes, the rates re­fund for va­cant prop­er­ties, the shop front scheme, town twin­ning, sports cen­tres, and con­fer­ences abroad.

Di­rec­tor of Ser­vice Frank Pentony warned that they were ‘ send­ing out the mes­sage that Louth is not open for busi­ness.’

He said he would not be able to pay out grants which had been promised, and he noted that the cuts were be­ing made at a time when there was much talk about town cen­tres dy­ing.

And in a move to pre­vent Drogheda coun­cil­lors from re­ject­ing the changes to pay park­ing, it was agreed that the County Coun­cil would vote on the de­ci­sion rather than the Mu­nic­i­pal Dis­trict Com­mit­tees.

The break­through in get­ting agree­ment on the bud­get came af­ter a three and a half hour meet­ing on Sun­day evening af­ter re­ject­ing it at two pre­vi­ous meet­ings.

It emerged at that meet­ing that they had been sent a let­ter in­form­ing them of their obli­ga­tions to pass a bud­get and if they didn’t do so, they could be re­placed by a com­mis­sioner, leav­ing the county with­out elected coun­cil­lors.

The fail­ure to adopt a bud­get could be seen as ‘wil­ful ne­glect’, they were warned.

Much of the de­bate was dom­i­nated by the Chief Ex­ec­u­tive’s pro­posal to in­crease pay park­ing and this was ro­bustly op­posed by Drogheda coun­cil­lors, with Cllr Frank God­frey claim­ing that it was un­der­min­ing the demo­cratic de­ci­sion taken at the Drogheda Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil.

Coun­cil­lors had also asked if the ex­tra in­come raised by in­crease pay park­ing charges could be ring fenced for the two towns, but were told this wasn’t pos­si­ble.

The of­ten tetchy at­mos­phere at the meet­ings re­flected the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween the elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and of­fi­cials at the top ta­ble.

There were nu­mer­ous ques­tions around how much the coun­cil had spent on the Fleadh, with coun­cil­lors com­plain­ing that there was a lack of clar­ity re­gard­ing the €250,000 which the Chief Ex­ec­u­tive said had been al­lo­cated to the Fleadh.

Ms Martin com­plained that ‘very se­ri­ous ac­cu­sa­tions and in­sin­u­a­tions were be­ing made’ cast­ing doubt on the fig­ures she had put be­fore the coun­cil.

A pro­posal by Cllr Pe­ter Sav­age that they ‘po­litely write’ to the Fleadh Com­mit­tee telling them they would to find €250,000 else­where and that the Coun­cil spend the money on hous­ing main­te­nance. This was ve­he­mently op­posed by Drogheda coun­cil­lors, with Cllr Richie Cul­hane point­ing out that the Fleadh had brought in €40mil­lion to €50mil­lion, earn­ing world­wide ex­po­sure not just for Drogheda but the whole county.

Sun­day’s meet­ing be­gan with coun­cil­lors ask­ing a num­ber of ques­tions, lead­ing to Ms Martin re­buk­ing them that they’d had the bud­get book for three weeks but most of the ques­tions started to come in on Fri­day evening and staff spent the week­end get­ting ques­tions and emails.

She said that no­body had ex­plained to her why the bud­get was re­fused. ‘No­body has con­tacted me. My phone is on, I’m avail­able 24 hours a day.’

Tem­pers frayed as the meet­ing dragged on, with coun­cil­lors grow­ing frus­trated as their sug­ges­tions of var­i­ous ways of mak­ing up the short­fall were ruled out by the of­fi­cials.

Af­ter an ini­tial vote, the Chief Ex­ec­u­tive told them that they weren’t pre­sent­ing a balanced bud­get and she would be in­form­ing the Min­is­ter at mid­night that the Coun­cil had wil­fully failed in its duty to pass a balanced bud­get.

She ac­cused them of know­ing the im­pli­ca­tions and not car­ing about what they were do­ing.

‘ That is out­ra­geous’ protested Cllr Mark Dearey, while Cllr Frank God­frey called for foren­sic ac­coun­tants to be brought in.

Amid com­plaints from coun­cil­lors that they weren’t be­ing giv­ing the in­for­ma­tion they needed to make de­ci­sions and that they had been mis­led as re­gards how much dis­cre­tionary fund­ing was avail­able to re­duce, the chair­man Cllr Liam Reilly called for a fur­ther re­cess.

Cllr Colm Markey then put a pro­posal which in­cluded cuts to the En­ter­prise Fund, the Busi­ness In­cen­tive Schemes, the rates re­fund for va­cant prop­er­ties, the shop front scheme, town twin­ning, sports cen­tres, and con­fer­ences abroad, to make up the short­fall. With just over a hour and a half to go to the mid­night dead­line, the amended bud­get was even­tu­ally passed, with the chair­man us­ing his cast­ing vote af­ter coun­cil­lors voted 14 for and 14 against.

The Sinn Fein coun­cil­lors were joined by Labour coun­cil­lors Pio Smith and Paul Bell and in­de­pen­dents Frank God­frey and Kevin Cal­lan in vot­ing against the bud­get. All Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coun­cil­lors voted for the bud­get, as did In­de­pen­dent Cllr Maeve Yore.

The mid­night oil was be­ing burned at County Hal­lon Sun­day night as the bud­get was passed at the third at­tempt.

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