DESPITE a three and a half hour meeting including four adjournments and four proposals, Tullamore Town Councillors voted not to reduce rates at their annual budget meeting.
By Grace O Dea
A Fianna Fail proposal identifying cuts to allow for a rate reduction of 3.9% was defeated in favour of one by Sinn Fein Cllr Brendan Killeavy which left rates as they were, with no decrease, and money moved instead to community grants.
In putting forward the proposal Cllr Paddy Rowland said businesses were struggling and a message needed to be sent out that Tullamore is "pro business, pro enterprise and pro jobs."
"We have gone beyond a zero increase. Making additional cuts and savings will be difficult. It wont be easy and it will affect some services in the town. If businesses do not survive we have a bigger problem, " said Cllr Rowland. "It's about making decisions. That is what politics is about," he added.
In seconding the motion Cllr Tony McCormack said 50% of income for the Town Council comes from businesses and people paying rates.
"While other bills are reducing the council rate is staying the same. Business people are questioning it. It's time to make a bold move and give those guys a break," he said, adding that potential investors will take everything into consideration when looking for a location.
He said while the rate payers would like the figure reduced by 15 or 20%, 3% was not a huge cut but "it's a start."
Cllr Sean O'Brien, who proposed the budget as presented said last year's Fianna Fail figures were "not quite as airy fairy as this one".
He said the proposed cuts would see "tumbleweeds down High Street", potholes everywhere and houses not being repaired. "We are responsible to see that the town is on a good footing. We could bury the town by cutting it to the bone," said Cllr O'Brien.
He said a 0% rate increase budget was 'responsible' and said he hoped that even at that, the budget could be achievable.
Cllr McCormack rejected Cllr O'Brien's "airy fairy" comment saying the figures were worked on.
Cllr Sinead Dooley said when she began the council was handed over in "severe debt by a Labour led council." "We took brave decisions to bring us to where we are now. It's not about staff versus ratepayers versus the council. We have to work together as a council," she said.
Two areas suggested to cut were housing maintenance and traveller accomodation. "We cant afford to do housing maintenance. We cant afford traveller site clean ups when businesses are closing," she said adding if businesses keep closing they wont have any rates.
Meanwhile Cllr Brendan Killeavy said businesses needed to be more "inventive" and look at what type of businesses are needed in the town centre.
"There are 13 town centre premises vacant," he said and proposed an incentive scheme for new businesses. He suggested that new businesses should be given a 60% reduction in rates for the first year, 25% in the second year and then pay full rates in the third year.
In his proposal he suggested that conference allowances be cut and move the money instead into community grants and bring the figure from €13,000 to €20,000. Mr Kirrane said the council hadn't the power to do something like that, but was told a councillor in another council was trying to challenge this.
"We will have council workers sitting in the yard," said Cllr Tommy McKeigue stating that the proposed Fianna Fail cuts would leave workers with jobs, but no materials or tools to carry out their duties.
Town Manager Declan Kirrane said the budget was already "pared to the bone" and that expenditure was down by €500,000.
"I reject that the council is not pro business. The development plan is one of the most pro business development plans ever seen. Initiatives were put in that would develop the town centre," he said.
He added that the commercial development contribution scheme had been cut from €53.50 per metre squared to €40 which is "the lowest in the gateway region." He added that parking charges had not been increased since their introduction in 2006. "We co-operate with the traders on a lot of initiatives," he said.
"If staff are employed they have to be gainfully employed. A 3.5% cut would be a €122,000 reduction to us," said Mr Kirrane.
He said there were 751 rate payers in the town and that 530 of those had a rate bill of less than €4,000 per annum and the 3% cuts would mean only around €200 extra a year to them.
He added that there were only seven rate payers in the town over €100,000. "The budget tries to provide services to all aspects of the town. A 1% cut would see the other 682 benefit to the tune of €100 per anum," he said.
Town Clerk Ruth McNally told members that the Local Government Fund had been cut by €95,000. She said the council was working with a budget of €6,349,000. As well as this it's anticipated that the roads grant will be cut by 25%.
A fourth proposal was mooted by Cllr Lar Byrne which would see a 1% decrease in rates. When asked where would the figure of €35,000 would come from Cllr Byrne asked Fianna Fail members to find it in their proposals.
"If we start reducing rates back this will revisit us. I'd counsel against any reduction," said Mr Kirrane.
Cllr Byrne proposed a cut of €5,000 from estate management, €10,000 from traveller accomodation, €5,000 from flooding, €5,000 from local elections, €5,000 from corporate expenses and €5,000 from street cleaning.
"If we can't find €35,000 from a budget of €6 million we may as well put a bolt on the door of Tullamore Town Council and go home," siad Cllr Dooley.
"It's of very little benefit, the reduced rate. It's a token gesture because the Fianna Fail party committed to business people in the town," said Cllr Killeavy.
"We will deal with next year when we get there," said Cllr Sinead Dooley. She also suggested looking at the boundary expansion of Tullamore and said it was crazy that one side of the street was rated by Tullamore Town Council and the other by Offaly County Council.
Mr Kirrane said he would have no problem looking at the boundary extensions. In terms of the proposed estate management cuts Cllr Tommy McKeigue said there were at least eight housing estates who had asked to be taken over and said he hoped councillors knew what they were doing.
"I wont vote for a reduction of €35,000," he said.
Cllr Molly Buckley opposed a proposed reduction in street cleaning, stressing that this was part of the town's recent success in the IBAL litter league and it had a big impact on businesses.
Cllr Killeavy suggestd cutting conferences from €15,000 to €12,000 and asked the council executive to find €4,000 to bring the community grants allocation up to €20,000.
Mr Kirrane said that five areas could be cut in order to find the €4,000.
€1,000 would be cut from derelict sites, €1,000 from training, €1,000 from estate management, €500 from postage and €500 off corporate expenses.
Councillors voted on the proposal which included a 0% rate change. The motion was passed by five to four with Cllrs Buckley, McKeigue, Byrne, O'Brien and Killeavy in favour and the four Fianna Fail councillors voting against.