STRIKING THE RATE

24 January 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The process of adopting Budgets for 2014, what used to be dubbed “striking the rate”, has now been completed by the county’s local authorities, marking an historic, watershed moment in their existence.
The rates reductions brought in at Town Council level, the first in a great many years, are remarkable against the prevailing economic background – and notable too as the first step in converging the figure levied on the county’s commercial sector towards a single countywide rate that is one of the objectives of the new single administrative structure Monaghan Co Council will operate as following the local elections later this year.
They are also of course one of the last significant acts that will be carried out by the town authorities prior to their abolition in May, with the generally upbeat and progressive nature of their final Budgets being presented by the Councils concerned as a last legacy to their constituents.
Our abrasive Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, we imagine, is not big into sighs of relief – but he perhaps indulged in a little private exhalation of breath when the local authority budgetary process was being completed nationwide with such quiescence.
In a more militant political cultures, Town Councils faced with arbitrary abolition after such a long history of service might have decided to stage a final act of concerted rebellion against their master and ignored his encouragements to reduce the rates burden on the business sector – indeed, they might have opted not to adopt a Budget at all as an act of protest and defiance and given the Minister an awkward administrative problem to resolve on the eve of his new “Putting People First” reforms coming into being.
We are inclined to share the puzzlement of Sinn Féin Co Councillor Brian McKenna – expressed again forcefully at Monday’s resumed Budget meeting of the county body – at how supinely local authority members on the whole have accepted the demise of town authorities and other curtailments of their powers and responsibilities.
Of course there have been protests, and we do not doubt the bona fides of committed protestors such as seasoned Fine Gael representative Hugh McElvaney who on Monday stoutly defended his actions as Local Authority Members Association national chairman in standing up for local representatives against some of the changes being pushed through by the Minister.
But the cacophony of complaint has never coalesced into an effective chorus – the protest song now being sung over the spendthrift manner in which the new Irish Water utility has been established, for example, has come far too late to reverse the significant loss of responsibility its creation means for local government administration.
And, where Town Councils are concerned, they will, come May, largely ignore the poet’s appeal not to go gentle into the good night and instead disappear into the twilight with some seemly level of nostalgic fanfare.
Even their perceived legacy of rates relief is a questionable memorial, undermined by the implications of the substantial provision now annually being made in local authority budgets – €1 million in the case of Monaghan Co Council – for irrecoverable rates.
It is astounding that meaningful rates reform has not been foregrounded in the current overhaul of local administration the Minister is pursuing – but it is also informative.
Rates income is hardly any longer a crucial factor in the health of a local authority’s finances, and its fiscal significance is further undermined by the steady evolution of a taxation environment where households are becoming effectively “rated” themselves through the property tax and pending water charges.
But their levying continues to have a crucial bearing on business costs and by extension on job protection and job creation – and Co Councils, when they come to explore the new responsibilities they are expected to discharge in the areas of enterprise and economic growth, may come to more fully realise just how debilitating the effects of the existing rates system can be.
What our Town Councils have done to ease the burden on local shops and businesses is a worthy gesture, but it will hardly bear decisively on the fate of those concerns dancing on the razor’s edge of viability.
What they need – and what our reconfigured local authority structure will certainly require as it goes about its new responsibilities – is a complete overhaul of this antique system of local taxation.

TWILIGHT OF THE JUNKET?
There were fifteen separate notifications of forthcoming conferences for members of local authorities on the agenda of Monday night’s meeting of Monaghan Town Council for consideration by the members.
It should be immediately stated that none of the events bar one evinced any inclination towards attendance by the Monaghan councillors – the exception being a February seminar in Bundoran being staged by their national representative body, the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland.
Town and Co Councillors in this county have been, in recent years at least, relatively discriminating and sparing in their participation in what has mushroomed into a highly lucrative source of revenue for the hospitality sector – and has sometimes provided the media, and the public, with critical ammunition of the “junket” variety.
The approximate cost of attendance at the events described on Monday’s agenda, in locations from Carlingford to Cork, ranged from €370 to €880 per member.
An eclectic range of learning opportunities were on offer, including such topics as “Employment Opportunities in Artisan Foods” and “Microsoft Excel Training Workshop for Councillors” as well as “Media Skills for Councillors” – and there was at least one event (“Doing More With Less – Managing Time and Productivity”) with a title suggesting its objective could be best met by non-attendance in the first place!
As the bell tolls for the “local rep”, so the death-knell seems sounding for the local authority conference – perhaps the reason why so many events of this nature appear to be on offer in the next few months before the political population is severely culled with the extinction of Town Councils.
What is twilight time for many local politicians would appear to have ignited a last feeding frenzy for the “junket” industry, which will have to survive on a relatively meagre customer base in the future.

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