7 March 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The “growing few” businesses in Co Monaghan in a position to pay their rates but not fulfilling the obligation will be pursued through the courts if necessary by Monaghan Co Council, it was stated on Tuesday.
Co Manager Eugene Cummins told the March meeting of the authority that the Council was prepared to “go after” businesses in the county able to meet rates obligations but who weren’t making any effort to pay.

But the Manager was equally forthright in his assurance to the members that businesses experiencing financial difficulty would be treated with sympathy and flexibility by the Council if they were willing to enter into discussions with the authority regarding payment plans.

The meeting saw the adoption of a motion proposed by Fianna Fáil’s P J O’Hanlon and seconded by his party colleague John O’Brien which stipulated that people who went out of business or closed their premises in the county would have their rates written off by the Council, but if they went back into business the rates bill would be reinstated.

Colr O’Hanlon put forward the motion as an alternative to the Council pursuing those who had gone out of business through the courts for rates payments.

Although the proposal was deemed to be a difficult one to implement by the Co Manager because of the legal complications attaching to it, and was initially declared lost by Co Mayor Sean Conlon after an initial show of hands vote, it was eventually passed when Colr O’Hanlon insisted that it be put to a recorded vote.

Colr O’Hanlon in tabling his proposal complained that the Co Council were taking people to court who had gone out of business at a time when their Local Government Fund grant was being reduced by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan.

Colr O’Brien in seconding accepted that “a fine balance” needed to be struck in this regard, and said that the provision should be applied when a company had gone out of operation due to the recession and had no money in its coffers. He pointed out that when the Council pursued such people for rates through the legal route it was at a cost to the taxpayer.

Co Mayor Sean Conlon said that if such people obtained the finance in the future to start up a new business, they would have to first meet their previous rates obligations.

Colr O’Hanlon said that was provided for in the motion.
Sinn Féin’s Brian McKenna asked what legal right the Council would have to implement such a proposal.

The Co Manager said that the majority of people in the county paid their rates, and he wanted to thank those people for doing so. There were people whose businesses had declined and who had generated rates arrears but who were making efforts to put a payment plan in place and he wanted to thank these genuine, hard-working people also.

However, Mr Cummins added, there were some people out there who were doing quite well and who weren’t making any effort to pay their rates or come in and talk to the Council, and the Council was going to go after these people and get this money back because it was only fair to the others.

“There are a growing few who are not making any effort to pay their rates and have businesses that are being quite successful, and we will in the very near future be making every effort to recover rates from them,” the Manager stated.

He said there were legal issues and huge complications attached to the motion that had been proposed. He could see where its proposer and seconder were coming from, but there were issues involved that would be hard to manage.

“I do not think there is any company out there who have come in and talked to our finance people and who did not get some assurance in terms of payment plans and a reasonable approach,” Mr Cummins added.
Head of Finance John Murray said that if someone went out of business and then started up a new concern, the previous two years of rates carried on to the new business. There was a formal procedure for writing off rates, and if the Co Council took this step they could not reinstate them.

“The people we take to court are people we feel can pay but won’t pay,” Mr Murray stated. It was only in exceptional cases that the Council took people to court – if people made any reasonable commitment to a payment plan, the Council would work with them.

Owen Bannigan (Fine Gael) said he wasn’t aware of any person who had made a genuine effort to deal with the Council on rates who didn’t get a fair hearing. Some businesspeople had gone through very tough times and the Council had made every effort to keep them in business and not close them down.

Jackie Crowe (Sinn Féin) agreed that staff were more than willing to sit down and talk to people who were in difficulties with rates.
Colr O’Hanlon’s motion was initially the subject of a show of hands vote and when only the proposer and seconder indicated support for it, it was deemed lost by Mayor Conlon.

However, when the meeting resumed after lunch, Colr O’Hanlon told the Mayor that he didn’t think the discussion on the motion had concluded when the vote was called – he hadn’t received his right of reply to its discussion.

Mayor Conlon said the vote was taken and the motion fell.
Pádraig McNally asked the Mayor to “take the vote properly” and Colr O’Hanlon requested that it be the subject of a “roll-call” or recorded vote.

When FG’s David Maxwell asked for clarification on the motion, Colr O’Hanlon said that any person who set up a business and then closed it just to avoid paying rates would not last long in business if that were their sole purpose. He accepted that the Co Council was entitled to go after people who didn’t pay their rates – his proposal was in relation to someone who went out of business through no fault of their own, through lack of business and loss of turnover.

“The Council are 100% right to follow people who are able to pay their rates,” the FF councillor added. He was not looking for rates to be written off willy-nilly, and rates bills could be reinstated if a person resumed business activity in the future.

“It is not a proud day for people to go out of business,” he added, stating that there were businesspeople in Carrickmacross “under savage pressure” at the present time.

He thought it was rather hypocritical of the Council to pursue people who had gone out of business through the courts when their own Local Government Fund allocation had been reduced by 40% over recent years “and there isn’t a word about it”.

Mayor Conlon agreed to a roll-call vote and ruled out further discussion on the motion, although Independent councillor Paudge Connolly endeavoured to contribute, stating that he wished to find out whether the motion was directed at Monaghan Co Council or the Government. Monaghan Co Council could not operate outside the law, he added, stating that he could support the motion if it was being put to the people in government.

When the vote was taken, it resulted:
FOR, 6 – Seamus Coyle, Robbie Gallagher, Pádraig McNally, John O’Brien, P J O’Hanlon, Seamus Treanor.
AGAINST, 4 – Owen Bannigan, David Maxwell, Ciara McPhillips, Aidan Murray.
ABSTAIN, 8 – Cathy Bennett, Matt Carthy, Sean Conlon, Paudge Connolly, Jackie Crowe, Noel Keelan, Brian McKenna, Pat Treanor.

Colrs Hugh McElvaney and Gary Carville weren’t in attendance at the meeting when the vote was taken.

After the result of the vote was confirmed, Colr Bannigan said it was “a sad day for the ratepayers who are making every effort”.
Colr O’Brien retorted that this was “a very unfair statement”.

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