“Welcoming the President of America, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to the county when they visited the president’s ancestral home of Moneygall was a wonderful thrill and I’ll take that to the grave with me.”
“The low was the budget, it’s the same for everyone in the council but when you are chair you in some respects feel it more. In the build up to the budget you are working to see can you try and find where we can save money. Unfortunately we had a massive hole of €4 million to find in terms of projected income.”
For Cllr Danny Owens last Friday marked a milestone. He performed his last official duty as Cathaoirleach of Offaly County Council in the same venue he performed his first. Here he speaks to Grace O’Dea about the highs and lows of his sixteen month term as Offaly’s first citizen:
Danny Owens first took the Cathaoirleach’s chair at Offaly County Council in February 2011 when he was co-opted due to the election of the then Cathaoirleach Barry Cowen to Dail Eireann.
His first official duty in February 2011 was to launch Grove Street TV in Crinkle, Birr. Last week his final official duty saw hime come full circle as he attended the opening of a multi games facility in Grove Street again.
Cllr Owens explained that the term was a mix of highs and lows, but mainly highs. In May of last year he had the priviledge of welcoming the President of America, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to the county when they visited the president’s ancestral home of Moneygall.
“That was a wonderful thrill and I’ll take that to the grave with me. I had a great chat particularly with Michelle because while he (President Obama) was talking to Henry she was talking to me and it seemed a long time. Timing is everything in life and I just happened to be there at the right time. That’s something I will treasure.”
He revealed that the build up and planning that went into the event was something he will always remember.
“I was part of a committee here in the County Council buildings, but there was an on the ground local committee there. At one time some of them came up to meet us and there was an open and frank discussion about what was going to happen and how it was going to happen and who was going to do this and who was going to take responsibility for that. A big effort was put in.”
However, Cllr Owens highlighted one element of the event that he was unhappy with.
“One of the overriding negatives that came out of it from my perspective was the exclusion of Brian Cowen and I don’t want to sound political about it, but given the fact he had invited him over and given the fact he had met him on a number of occasions, the fact he wasn’t party to any aspect of his meeting in the county of Offaly, for those of us who put in a lot of work trying to ensure that he would be there, it was disappointing. But those decisions were made at a higher level and we didn’t have the influence required to change them.”
Subsequent to that other things happened such as Cllr Owens being invited up to the July 4 celebrations in the Embassy.
Another aspect of his term he will thing on with fond memories was the Civic Reception for Offaly’s three Special Olympians.
“At the reception here when they came back that evening I suggested that we would have a Civic Reception for them and the associations in the council. The Civic Reception was for the three medal winners, but also for all the associations. There are a lot of components, there were eight or nine groupings within Offaly. They all received a little scroll of their own for the work they are doing. The people who help the athletes are deserving of great praise as well.
“The three medal winners were Patrick Moore in Soccer, John Michael Gannon in Gymnastics and Gerry McCabe in Basketball. These people are after winning something on a world stage and that is something we have acknowledged before and the fact they are intellectually challenged doesn’t mean they don’t deserve something similar.
“It was one of the warmest feelings I ever got at any event over the past 16 months. It was a wonderful event.”
Another high point was the visit of the Japanese Ambassador Chihiro Atsumi to Tullamore. Cllr Owens also enjoyed meeting the Offaly Associations in Dublin, London and New York to see first hand the work they are doing. “They are a focal point for people leaving Ireland.”
Of course with the highs come the lows and in particular passing a difficult budget was something Cllr Owens remembers with sadness.
“The low was the budget, it’s the same for everyone in the council but when you are chair you in some respects feel it more. In the build up to the budget you are working to see can you try and find where we can save money or where we can implement the budget better. Unfortunately we had a massive hole of €4 million to find in terms of projected income and that was down to things like no income at all from waste. It’s now a liability in the sense that it’s costing us money to maintain the site and that was one time a big income earner.
“Fall offs of projectons of water income and other income like planning income, everywhere we looked there were shortfalls. The cuts fell in every area of the council, even the essential areas, certainly the non essential areas got a right rap altogether and in more recent times in the first quarter of this year we are a further three quarters of a million euro down and some of those cuts are now beginning to bite. I see it in the roads and housing maintenance budget.
“They are already affected by that shortfall and having to correct it. That was due to unforeseen circumstances like more people resigning at the end of February than was anticipated for so that wasn’t budgeted for. Those kind if things happen and you just have to deal with them on the fly. To bring in a budget that was affecting the general public of the county, it’s not easy to do that.”
Another cut which Cllr Owens was unhappy to see was the Cathaoirleach’s Community Awards. The fund gave grants to various sectors of the community from youth clubs to active age groups. “It was aimed at people making life better for those in their communities.”
While he had the honour of shaking hands with the President of the United States of America, Cllr Owens did miss out on attending an event with Queen Elizabeth II. “The Cathaoirleachs of all the counties were invited to the event in the convention centre. The invites were sent out at the end of February around the time of the General Election.” But as he was only acting Chairman at the time no invitation came to Offaly.
Overall Cllr Owens will take with him some wonderful memories of his lenghty term.
“I visited all parts of the county from Moneygall to Edenderry and everywhere in between. To see the amount of volunteerism and community involved in activities now, if there is one benefit from the downturn it is probably that people are taking ownership of their communities again. People are working together and that was very evident the last year.
“The biggest honour of all was being the Chair of the Council,” he said.
He said for country areas such as Killeigh, Cappincur and Mucklagh, it was the first time they had a representative in the chair. “They said it was great to see someone they had a strong part in elected to the chair of the council.”
Cllr Owens may have ended his term but has not ruled out another term in future.
“Maybe if I live for another ten years it might come around again,” he laughed.