Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this review of the local property tax and the legislation that will underpin it. It is important that we support local government with proper funding.
I will take some time to speak about Galway County Council in my constituency and its precarious situation in terms of financial support. An expert advisory group on local government arrangements in Galway examined the prospect of amalgamating Galway city and county councils. According to its report dated 26 April 2018, "the Expert Advisory Group recommends that the existing deficiencies in respect of both the human and financial resources be expeditiously resolved as an essential prerequisite to the amalgamation process." It made this recommendation because there was a serious lack of funding in Galway, but the reason for that remains a mystery. At every chance since entering the Dáil more than four years ago, I have tried to elicit from the Department the formula that is used for the distribution of the equalisation fund to local authorities. The announcement of the changes to the local property tax presents an opportunity to address this underfunding for Galway County Council.
I will offer some comparisons. Galway County Council is comparable to local authorities in Mayo, Donegal, Kerry and Tipperary, but it is getting the lowest budget despite having the largest population. To illustrate this point, for Galway County Council to have had the same budget in 2020 as the average between Mayo, Donegal, Kerry and Tipperary, it would have needed an additional €28 million. Using the Local Government Fund's local property tax allocation as an alternative basis for comparison, Galway County Council would have needed an additional €10.8 million to have had the same average budget per capitaas those four counties. The problem with this is that it means there is a year-on-year deficiency.
Galway County Council has staff who are working overtime and on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays in order to meet statutory requirements because we do not have enough staff to allow people to work proper hours. We do not have an enforcement officer in the planning department in the east of the county where I live because the council cannot afford to take on one. I believe our county, which is geographically the second largest in the country, has four housing liaison officers at a time when there is a housing crisis. If someone left Clifden for Ballinasloe, he or she would only be halfway to Dublin without having left the county.
The extreme urgency of this underfunding is not to be underestimated. Roads engineering staff are out there doing work. I am fearful that because of the pressure and stress they are under, mistakes will be made. I fear for their health and safety. It is important that we support the chief executive, Mr. Jim Cullen, the directors of services and the staff in a meaningful way.
I am raising this matter with the Minister because the local property tax brings with it an opportunity to address imbalances between local authorities and ensure there is fairness for everyone. Galway in the second largest county in Ireland. We have islands, scenic areas, tourism potential and a Gaeltacht, but we also have a large number of CLÁR areas where there is underfunding and low population growth. Despite these issues, we are trying to build an economic base using Galway County Council, but we are finding it difficult to get people in place to access the funding that is available from various State agencies. We are being squeezed in whatever we try because we do not have the resources and morale is low. I am not saying this with the begging bowl out. These are simply well-documented facts.
An advisory group has examined Galway county and city councils, but we need to deal with the financial problems before we return to the agenda of amalgamation, which I support. It is important that this matter be raised at Cabinet level to ensure that Galway, which is a fine and large county, is not left without proper funding. We must ensure that we protect our workers and that councils deliver services in a safe manner that achieves the best results for the money they are given.
I ask that the Minister take this matter into account. I support the idea of reviewing the local property tax, but it presents an opportunity for the Government to address what has been a well-documented bugbear for Galway for a long time.