Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Topical Issue Debate
Local Authority Funding
Time is short, given I am sharing time with Deputy Martin Kenny, who I am glad is also raising this issue. The Minister is well aware of the situation. On 14 September I sought a meeting with him and the key official involved in this issue. As of today, nobody has met with me. A private meeting took place last week with Deputy Tony McLoughlin, after which he managed to successfully return to the people of Sligo and tell them they have to increase their property tax by 15%. The people do not have to increase their property tax by 15%. Fingal County Council has €100 million on deposit but there is no shortage of library services there, which is the latest debacle in terms of the difficulty with a financial plan that is totally unworkable.
In reply to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister stated that borrowing for a local authority is a reserved function. That is a typical Sir Humphrey, "Yes, Minister", get out of jail-type clause. Section 106 of the Local Government Act states that is not the case and that the Department has to sanction said borrowing and satisfy itself that this borrowing can be met. The reality is that, many years later, Sligo has a debt of approximately €100 million to €120 million, based on figures supplied by the Minister's Department. His county owes €600 million yet there are no library cuts there, no cuts in Dún Laoghaire and no cuts Fingal.
What kind of idiots does the Minister take the people of Sligo to be? We are equal citizens of this country and we are entitled to services. The same mandate and votes that Deputy Tony McLoughlin got are the ones Deputy Martin Kenny and I got. The people are equal citizens. The Minister should not throw us under the bus like the ECB or the European Commission did to Ireland, because that is precisely what the Minister and his officials are doing to the people of Sligo. Sligo will not stand for it. I am here today, and will be here again next week and the week after, to demand that the Minister make appropriate support available to Sligo local authority-----
We have an unworkable financial plan in Sligo and that is the reality. The people of Sligo pay their property tax the same as people do everywhere else. The people in rural Sligo - in Tubbercurry or Ballymote - when they build a house have to pay their development charges, and for those charges they are told they will get services. The people of Sligo did not run up this bill of legacy debt. They deserve services the same as people deserve them in every other part of the country.
The financial plan that was put in place means that, this year, there will be a surplus of over €2 million in County Sligo. It has already reached €1.4 million. This is money that is being taken out of the local economy and taken away from the local people, who would have spent it in local shops and businesses. Next year, the surplus is to increase to €3.4 million and the next year to over €4 million. That is totally unworkable in a county like Sligo. It is not like we have huge economic development or growth west of the Shannon. A Brexit crisis is facing us and we have a county and a region which are, in effect, in economic decline compared to the rest of the country. There needs to be a recognition of this fact.
I implore the Minister to meet with Sligo County Council once again to review this entire financial plan and to come up with a new plan which is workable and which will provide services for people in the long term. The current plan simply will not work. The Minister will have a revolt on his hands if he continues down this path. I implore him to immediately meet with the elected representatives of County Sligo - the county councillors who were elected by the people - and work out a new plan which will work for the people. It is no good having a plan that works for the Department in Dublin if it does not provide library services, road services and everything else that is needed.
An example of the problem is seen in the fact that 12 temporary outdoor staff had to be taken on in Sligo last year, when funding became available due to the flooding, as there were no outdoor staff to do the work. Now that is coming to an end, those people will be let go, although we are facing another crisis in that regard. I implore the Minister to meet with the elected representatives from County Sligo to ensure a proper plan can be put in place that is workable and that will provide for the people.
I thank both Deputies for raising this issue because it is one of real concern in Sligo. I met last week with the chief executive of the local authority in Sligo. It was not a political meeting. It was a meeting to go through a letter he had sent to me outlining the challenges the council faces. It is important to say that every local authority has a responsibility to manage its expenditure in a way that deals with everything from debt to providing an acceptable level of local services. It is true that the current chief executive came to the position in Sligo and is trying to deal with a lot historical debt issues. There have been numerous meetings between very senior officials in my Department and officials from Sligo County Council and we continue to work with them to try to ensure that they can implement the plan that was signed off by the local authority only nine months ago.
No it was not under threat. As part of the plan, the Department agreed to give an extra €1 million to Sligo each year over a five-year period. Only nine months later we are now in a situation where we are being told the plan is not workable. I have to stand over a situation where we are trying to bring back an acceptable level of financial management to the local authority in Sligo. Of all of the councils in the country I accept that Sligo County Council is under more pressure than any other. That is why we have a financial plan in place, which was agreed and signed off with the council, whereby Sligo gets special treatment. We put €1 million that otherwise would not go to Sligo into Sligo County Council each year for the next three to four years, up until 2019. It is not true to say that we are asking for a surplus of €4 million at any stage in the future. I am sorry but that is not accurate. In 2016 the figures are €2.3 million; in 2017, €3.41 million; in 2018, €3.1 million and in 2019, €2.8 million. They are the figures that were signed off by the chief executive of Sligo County Council only last December. We are trying to work on that basis, with all the challenges faced by Sligo County Council and we continue to work in that regard.
The chief executive wrote to me with a number of asks before the meeting which were nothing to do with politics. They were about financial management. There was an issue in relation to local enterprise offices, LEOs, and we said we would accommodate that. There was also an issue about the impact of site resolution tax in Sligo, which we also said we would accommodate, and adjust the targets accordingly. Other issues included the deferral of payments from this year to next year. We are looking to see whether we can accommodate that. There is no politics at play here. What is happening is that I am trying to work with Sligo County Council to manage a very difficult historical debt situation, to ensure that over the next four or five years we get a level of management back into the financial resources that are available to Sligo that is sustainable into the future. At the same time, part of the financial plan was to ensure that services remain intact.
Reference was made to staff numbers but if one looks at staff numbers in neighbouring local authorities they are not that different to Sligo. I accept there are particular problems at the moment concerning the library service, because a number of staff are out. Of the 12 or so staff that are assigned across three libraries, a number of them are unable to work at the moment. Again, we are trying to work through that with the management as well. I will not come to the House and have people shout across the Chamber at me, saying that we are doing nothing for Sligo. We are working with a plan that Sligo signed off on and we are trying to ensure that it can be as workable as possible. We are adjusting targets to try to address some of the requests that have come from management in the local authority and we will continue to work with it to ensure that we find a viable way forward.
The reality on the ground is that this plan was never workable. We can hide behind the fact that the Minister said it was not rammed down Sligo's throat as a plan that it had to adopt. Deputy Martin Kenny referred to a surplus of €4 million. The Minister then read out the amounts of €3.4 million and €3.1 million. What is the difference? If we go back a few years to when Donegal had some difficulty-----
Excuse me. Will the Minister go to the assistant secretary in question and ask him why he did not have the manners to acknowledge his own elected representatives and meet a Senator, which he did not, and the Minister so far has refused to do the same? The Minister should remember what is behind the confidence and supply agreement because one cannot just take 65,000 people in Sligo and cast them aside. Nothing will take from the fact that last Wednesday the Minister sent his Deputy, Deputy Tony McLoughlin, and his councillor, Cathaoirleach Hubert Keaney, back to Sligo and said that the property tax should be increased by 50%. What will happen next? Will the people of Sligo be expected to pay more income tax specifically for their local hospital, more car tax specifically for the repair of the roads? The Minister should get with it. If this was happening in Cork there would be a revolution, but no, it is little old Sligo where the Government has just one Deputy for 65,000 people.
We will not stand for it. The Minister should get used to this kind of robust debate because that is what is going to happen again and again as long as he shows continuing contempt for the people of Sligo.
It is the people that we represent. Some people who were employed by the State as servants of the State in Sligo made mistakes in the past during the boom that happened in this country but to talk about money that was won or lost is like talking about the rain that fell last week. It is over, it is gone. We need to look at the new situation and move things forward. I fully accept that the Minister has met with people and that he is trying to sort out the situation but the truth is that the plan that was put in place simply does not work and cannot work for the people of Sligo. It is a serious problem if people in any regional town in the country do not have access to a library service or when those who are on a waiting list for a housing grant cannot even get it processed never mind get the grant money paid because of the absence of staff in the local authority. That is a problem not just for Sligo but for the country. We represent everyone in the country in this House. If this country is about anything it should be about ensuring that people get a proper and adequate service.
I again appeal to the Minister to sit down, not to talk about individual parts of the plan that was put in place that might be running into difficulty, but to look at the plan in its entirety and recognise that it is simply unworkable. Regardless of whether the plan was agreed in good faith in the past or if people have different views on how it came about, the reality is that it does not and will not work for the people of Sligo and the Minister must sit down with the elected representatives of the area, redo the plan and come up with a new scenario that will work.
What we are trying to do is ensure that it does work. We are showing flexibility, which we have been asked to do by the chief executive and his team. That is exactly what we have been trying to do.
I would say Deputy MacSharry is someone who is easy to negotiate with. We are working through those issues, as we are obliged to do. Sligo County Council has an obligation to work through some very difficult financial matters at the moment. If I simply decide to grant significantly more money to Sligo to deal with difficult issues I had better take it from somebody else.
Let me answer the question because the Deputy had the courtesy at least to ask some questions. What we will continue to do is work with Sligo County Council to try to ensure that a plan that was signed off by Sligo County Council nine months ago actually works. We will show flexibility and give support where needed, which is what we are looking at doing at the moment. However, we cannot simply pretend there are not difficult financial and historical issues that need to be dealt with. We cannot just-----