TULLAMORE Town Council's rates are 'way too high' and unless they are reduced many local businesses will close, was the stark warning from a meeting of local traders .
The gathering on MOndaywas organised by Tullamore Chamber of Commerce prior to the Town Council's meeting tomorrow night (Thursday) to strike the annual rate.
The Chamber proposed that the Town Council reduce the Annual Rate of Valuation by 4% each year over the next three years to bring ARV in line with Athlone.
The Tullamore rate of €68.33 is 12.5% higher than Athlone's of €60.72 while Mullingar's AVR is 24% less (€55.11) and Offaly County Council's AVR is €56.77 which is 20.3% less which means that businesses outside the urban area such as those located on the Portarlington Road pay 20% less than other companies just metres away inside the town boundary.
Many of the speakers at Monday's meeting were very aggrieved at the AVR and felt that a reduction of 4% was not enough.
PJ Lynam who has a business in the Tanyard called for a reduction in rates of 50%. "Our backs are to the wall. Rates are way too high, they have to be knocked down or we will all be out of business by the end of this year."
Barbara O'Connell who owns two businesses - Dolan's Pharmacies, asked why Tullamore's rates were so much higher than neighbouring towns especially larger towns such as Athlone and Mullingar. John Lyons of The Business Centre pointed out that local businesses pay their rates but have no say in how the money is spent by the Town Council.
"We have all had to tighten our belts, the Council should too. I want to know why the Council is spending our money if we can't afford it." He also called on the elected representatives who attended the meeting to show more support for local business people.
Brian Digan of BDH in the Tanyard also felt that a reduction of 4% was not enough. He pointed out that in the past few years he had to reduce staff numbers from 14 to five, wages had been reduced by a lot more than 4% and his staff were even offering to work overtime to ensure they stayed in business.
"We will find it difficult to stay in business this year. There will be more losses than profits. We should be looking for a cut in rates of at least 12% or 15% to bring us in line with Athlone and Mullingar. Why are we such an elite town that our Council feels they can charge 15% more?"
Architect Peter Lyons pointed out that his company had cut costs by 15% to 20% over the past few years and he felt that the Town Council should reduce the rate by a lot more than 4%, he agreed with Brian Digan's suggestion of 15%.
Noel McCann of the Bridge House also suppported the call for a reduction of 15% and said it was time for the Council to prune expenses and cut councillors' wages and staff wages. "It's time to bring the Town Council out to the Ring Road to increase the amount taken in rates."
Auctioneer Shaun Wrafter thought that the rates were based on property valuations which could be appealed, but incoming Chamber President Joe O'Brien of the Tullamore Court Hotel pointed out that under the 2001 Act it was no longer possible to appeal the AVR and that the only way that rates were changed was if physical changes were carried out to the premises through extensions or demolitions.
Former long-serving town councillor and businessman John Flanagan Snr said there was no reason why the County Council could not extend the urban boundary to the Ring Road, but he doubted if the County Council would agree to this.
He also added that Tullamore had suffered far more than towns like Athlone, Mullingar and Portlaoise because of the many local businesses that were linked to the construction industry because of local assets such as the sand pits of the Eiscir Riada. "A 12% difference between Tullamorer and Athlone is a big disadvantage, we're not on a level playing pitch."
"A town is like a business," pointed out Dominic Doheny of the Flanagan Group. "It has to compete with other towns. Are we spending more per capita than other towns? What is the Town Council's spend per capita in Tullamore?"
Seamus Dolan asked the local councillors what input they had in the balancing of the Town Council's budget and wondered if requesting a reduction in the rate was "totally insurmountable." Local publican Dave Kavanagh asked if there was any representative of the Council officials at the meeting and what was the Council's justification of the rates?
Joe O'Brien pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce had met with Council officials. "We told them that we had cut everything that we could to make savings and we hoped that the Council could do the same."
The local councillors who attended the meeting were Paddy Rowland, Declan Harvey, Tony McCormack, Sean O'Brien, Lar Byrne and Brendan Killeavy. There were apologies from Tommy McKeigue, Molly Buckley and Sinead Dooley who were attending the County Council's budget meeting.
Cllr Rowland (Fianna Fail) pointed out that the Town Council has a budget of €6million of which over €3million would come from rates. Their budget has to cover the running of facilities such as the swimming pool, the town park, housing maintenance, roads and footpaths he said.
"We recognise the difficulties people are under, we will listen and we will go back to the Council and report. We will be going forward with another suggestion to the Town Council."
"We recognise this is a serious issue but we can't say at this stage what the rate will be. We want to send out a clear message that Tullamore is open for business."
Labour councillor Sean O'Brien pointed out that if the councillors rejected the budget and did not strike a rate that eventually the Minister would appoint an Administrator who could strike a rate of a 20% increase.
"We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Over the past few years the amount taken in by rates has reduced significantly. Of the Top 20 rate payers three have now closed."
He also pointed out that Local Government funding is down. "We could decide not to clean the streets and that would save 10% on rates. A 4% reduction in rates would mean a loss of €140,000 to the Town Council's budget. That is a big loss."
"Tullamore is a far more progressive town than Portlaoise that is why our rate is higher. We have to try to run the town. We have to be positive. We would be telling you a lie if we said we would ask for a 10% to 12% reduction in the rate. We have to strike a rate or run for cover" he warned.
There is a chasm between the Council and local businesses, claimed Ken Grennan of Grennan's Butchers. "There really is a gulf between the reality of running a business in Tullamore and what is being carried out in the Council office. Most business people are being left out in the cold. The councillors really need to understand how desperate our position is.
"I agree with PJ that a reduction of 50% is what we really need and I feel that the councillors should have run out the door from this meeting with the suggested 4% decrease and been glad that was all we were looking for!
"It is very difficult to sit here and listen how difficult it is for the Council to balance its budget while we're trying desperately to keep our staff in jobs. I'm disapppointed that the Councillors did not get behind the figure of 4%."
Cllr Declan Harvey said he would support the Chamber's call for a 4% decrease in the rate, but Cllr Brendan Killeavy of Sinn Fein said he would be voting for a freeze on the rate not to change from last year. "We have services to run and they have to be funded," he said.
Labour councillor Lar Byrne said he didn't want to see anyone losing their jobs either in business or in the Council and said he would not be voting for an increase in the rates. "We will work tooth and nail to support business in this town."
"If you don't make those decisions for us jobs will be lost" warned Dominic Doheny. "We need to act boldly" urged Peter Lyons. He called on the Council to reduce the rate which would attract new business to the town which would then make up the shortfall.
"The next time we come back to a meeting like this, we will be throwing in the keys," added PJ Lynam. Paddy Carragher of Quirke's Medical Hall said the councillors may have been listening to the speakers, but they did not appear to understand them.
"We didn't have a choice in how our businesses went down. The shopper made their choice. The bottom line is we don't have the money to give the Council. If the Council gets €2.5million in rates in 2011 they will be doing well."
The Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce's Rates Committee Tony Flanagan said that they "genuinely" thought the suggested 4% decrease was a figure the Council could work with. "If you ignore us, you are looking at disaster. We're bringing a responsible proposal to you."
The meeting concluded with Joe O'Brien pleading that the Councillors do something. "Not a single business in this town has suffered losses of less than 30%, costs have been reduced. It is galling that for the last three years local businesses have been going through hell. People are extremely upset. We urgently need something to be done."