WHAT’S BEHIND THE MASK?

7 June 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

We’ve got a glimpse in the past week of the visage of the Brave New World promised by Minister for Environment Phil Hogan TD when he launched his ‘Putting People First’ package of local government reforms some time back.

That glimpse was disclosed by the publication of the report of the Local Electoral Boundary Commission charged with drafting the new lineaments of the battlegrounds upon which the 2014 local government elections and those immediately ensuing will be fought.

But we have been presented with something more akin to a mask than a face – superficially well defined but silent as to what lies beneath, in this case the detail of the practical functioning of the Co Councils that will come into being this time 12 months.

The disguise was a somewhat surprising one in Co Monaghan’s case. The new geographical divide of electoral areas was expected to follow a neat north/mid/south cut – instead the traditional Mid-Monaghan electoral identity has been obliterated, with its sundered parts now residing, perhaps a shade uneasily, alongside its southern and eastern neighbours in the expanded Carrickmacross and Clones electoral precincts.

The new dispensation throws up all sorts of interesting ramifications for politics-watchers to ponder upon in the coming months: how the shifts will affect particular councillors and the parties’ choice of candidates, and what strategies the parties and the non-aligned aspirants to local office will adopt to maximise their chances of election, are puzzles that provide much grist for the mills of speculation.

Though no doubt lodged somewhere in the minds of the members of Monaghan Co Council, these questions, fascinating as they are, took a back seat when the Brave New World cropped up as a topic for discussion at the authority’s meeting on Tuesday afternoon.

The councillors, commendably, commenced a consideration of the practical implications of the abolition of Town Councils and the devolution of their responsibilities to the new county authority – and what ensued was an interesting if somewhat tentative exploration of a topic likely to occupy them increasingly in the months to come.

The immediate prompt was the disclosure by Co Council Head of Finance John Murray that Monaghan’s five town authorities have a collective financial deficit of some €864,000, causing some members to speculate on the implications of this burden, and how it would be accommodated, when the new eighteen-member Co Council takes sole charge of local government administration in the county in a year’s time.

The passing of a motion seeking an effective guarantee from the Government that resources would be placed at the disposal of Co Councils sufficient to equip them with their new responsibilities was a natural step for the members to take.

It invites a response that could reasonably be expected to put some meat of clarity on the skeleton – but it may also prompt a direction from Minister Hogan’s Department to those sections of his ‘Putting People First’ document that hint at responsibility for generating financial resources resting more onerously on the shoulders of local authorities themselves in the future.

And this in turns leads to a focusing on the always -vexed question of domestic rates.
As was pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting, the rate on valuation that applies to commercial properties in Co Monaghan varies considerably among the different local authority jurisdictions that currently exist – there is a sometimes marked differential between the rate applying in each of the towns, and these are different again from the rate in the Co Council area.

Councillors were informed that the Dept envisages a ten-year process of convergence over which the different rates will be brought into a state of harmony. The destination may indeed be harmonious – but the journey could be less so.

Businesspeople somewhere in the county would seem bound, on a superficial analysis of the situation, at some stage to be inevitably asked to pay more – and a rates increase is a prospect greatly at odds with the prevailing commercial climate, as was vividly demonstrated at Tuesday’s meeting when an appeal for a rates decrease in the town of Ballybay was one of the subjects discussed.

The sounding of alarm bells on this point is certainly premature, but the implications for ratepayers of the new local government structure is an issue sufficiently emotive to focus welcome attention on the many operational issuses that still remain unclear about the Brave New World that will imminently overtake us.

A related point that also needs some degree of clarification is the implications for the decision-making autonomy that for towns was previously vested in their elected Council.
Will town-specific decisions now reside with the electoral area or municipal district into which the town has been assigned, or will the new Co Council as a whole have the ultimate determining role? And will funding generated locally – for example, the revenue generated by pay-parking regimes – continue to be spent locally or will this be absorbed into some central ‘pot’?

Wisely, Monaghan Co Council has already put a project team of officials in place to examine the future functioning of the authority and, as Acting Co Manager David Fallon put it at Tuesday’s meeting, address how the same level of service can be provided to the public that they have become accustomed to under the Town Council structure.

The report of the team and the deliberations of the elected members when this is placed before them in future months will undoubtedly begin to prise the mask from the face of the Minister’s new creation and give us an outline of the features beneath.

And it is important that those features – whether they are that of an Adam, or that of a Frankenstein – are fully disclosed to the voting public well in advance of what will be extremely important local elections in 2014.

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