COUNTY’S CHILDCARE SECTOR IN RATES REVOLT– LOBBYING SECURES CO COUNCILLORS’ BACKING FOR EXEMPTION CALL

11 April 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Intensive lobbying from the childcare sector in Co Monaghan resulted in the members of Monaghan Co Council on Monday supporting the demand that crèches, pre-schools and similar facilities in the county be regarded as education providers and made exempt from having commercial rates levied upon them.

Fears were expressed during the debate that a number of such centres could close as a result of rates demands, while others would be forced to increase the cost of childcare provision that parents in the county had to meet.

A motion from the Sinn Féin members calling on the Government to exempt all educational and childcare facilities from commercial rates was unanimously supported, with similar proposals from the Fianna Fáil grouping and Independent councillor Paudge Connolly likewise endorsed.

Co Council Head of Finance John Murray said the fixing of rates on premises was a matter for the Valuation Office, and if a property was valued for rates than the Council was obliged to collect rates from it.

In a question on the agenda of Monday’s meeting, SF’s Matt Carthy asked: “How many childcare facilities in Co Monaghan are currently being levied for commercial rates? How many childcare facilities in Co Monaghan have been determined by the Valuation Office as being exempt from commercial rates?”

A written reply stated: “There are 15 childcare facilities in the county currently rated. There are three facilities exempt from rates.
“On the 24th February 2014, a list of 29 childcare facilities was sent to the Valuation Office for valuation.”

The SF motion on the agenda read: “That Monaghan Co Council calls on the Government to exempt all educational and childcare facilities from commercial rates.”

Moving it, Colr Carthy made the argument that all the activities that took place at childcare facilities in Co Monaghan were very much educational as they were concerned with putting in place the proper foundations for the life-long development of children. He predicted that imposing rates would lead to the closure of some childcare facilities in the county, because the premises in question were “on a knife-edge” at the present time.

Colr Carthy asked the Co Manager to explain why this provision was being implemented in Co Monaghan when it was not in some other counties. Childcare centres, he believed, operated to the highest standards and they should not be required to pay rates that in some cases could amount to €1,000s per annum.

Brian McKenna, seconding, said the main bone of contention was around the definition of childcare and whether the centres providing it were educational facilities. The contention that it was had support from the national body that dealt with curriculum assessment, and therefore he believed such centres should be exempt from rates.

“Will we be putting rates on national and secondary schools next?” Colr McKenna asked. He believed the Government needed to give a direction to the Valuation Office on this matter.

The evidence was that children who received pre-school childcare were enormously benefited when they moved into the formal school sector. Pointing to the employment that childcare outlets provided, Colr McKenna said asking these facilities to pay rates would have an impact on the wages of their staff, and would lead in an increase in the charges that parents had to pay.

“We should not be charging the most vulnerable in society rates,” SF’s Cathy Bennett stated. “This is another expense that will fall on families.”

Childcare providers should be seen as educators, she believed. These were not moneymaking businesses, and she didn’t know how parents would be expected to manage if they didn’t have childcare facilities.

“An attack on women and children,” was the description applied to the proposal by Independent councillor Paudge Connolly, who had a motion on the agenda calling on Monaghan Co Council “not to commence with the implementation of full commercial rates on childcare service centres that provide pre-school services and education for children up to six years, particularly in view of the fact that several Co Councils do not implement any charges.”

Colr Connolly said that childcare facilities largely facilitated women in getting back into the workplace. If rates were imposed, it would threaten the existence of quite a number of these facilities.

“DANGEROUS MOVE”

“This is a new tax we are talking of imposing which other counties are not,” the Independent representative stated. “It is a dangerous move in the wrong direction.”

Fianna Fáil councillor Pádraig McNally said that rate costs would be added to the cost of childcare. For many parents, childcare was the next biggest cost they faced over and above their mortgage.

“To introduce this charge at this time would be nothing less than criminal,” Colr McNally believed.

Noel Keelan (SF) said it was estimated that almost 3,000 children were being cared for on a daily basis in childcare facilities in Co Monaghan. They should be exempt from commercial rates like all other educational facilities.

If women wanted to get back into work, the cost of childcare must go down, not go up, Colr Keelan stated. He called on the Government to bring in legislation that exempted childcare facilities from commercial rates.

Fine Gael councillor Hugh McElvaney, indicating his seconding of Colr Connolly’s motion, said that the SF motion missed the point – it wasn’t the Government who were responsible for rates, but each local authority. The responsibility lay with the Co Manager, and as a result he was asking the Council executive to write off any rates or charges currently being imposed on pre-schools and playschools “and allow them to continue on without that burden”.

Owen Bannigan (FG) said that crèches were changing from their traditional model, and were now providing education facilities. Every other education provider in the county was exempt from rates, and the fact that a number of other local authorities did not impose rates charges on such facilities was enough for him to support the proposal in Co Monaghan.

Colr Bannigan said he was aware that the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald TD was at present preparing a legislative document on the future provision of childcare in the country. He felt the Co Council should make representations to the Minister to include this provision in the Bill she was preparing so that the exemption of childcare facilities from rates could be applied on a statutory national basis.

Ciara McPhillips (FG) said that like other councillors she had been lobbied by individual groups on this issue, and as a result had made contact with Minister Fitzgerald.

Colr McPhillips said that there were a number of grounds upon which childcare facilities could become exempt from rates. One was if they were facilities for the purposes of education, and she believed that all childcare providers in the county followed an educational curriculum.

Another was if the facilities concerned were not for profit, and Colr McPhillips believed that there were grounds for exemption here also, as while some childcare outlets were limited companies, there was no dividend being drawn down by shareholders. She also emphasised the fact that childcare centres were subject to severe regulation.

The Clones Area councillor said that imposing rates on childcare facilities would be a retrograde step, but she didn’t think the blame could be laid at the door of the Government in this case, pointing out that they had a Minister for Children who last week had put extra funding for childcare in place.

SF’s Jackie Crowe emphasised the important role that childcare facilities played in providing employment outlets for women, and urged his fellow councillors to “fight against this tax”.

Colr McKenna, referring to Colr McElvaney’s contribution, stated that: “The SF motion does not miss the point – the SF motion is very much to the point.”

VALUATION OFFICE WOULD MAKE DETERMINATION
The Co Council’s Head of Finance John Murray told the meeting that the Council had forwarded details of all the crèches in the county to the Valuation Office, and it would be the Valuation Office who would determine whether or not they were liable for rates based on a questionnaire.

Mr Murray said that details of 29 facilities were sent off, and the Co Council had written to each of them telling them that they had listed their properties and had notified the Valuation Office. The Council didn’t know when the Valuation Office would value the properties – it could be this year, or next year.

Representatives of the Valuation Offices would visit the properties concerned and would make a determination on whether they were liable for rates. If a premises was found liable, this decision could be appealed by the owner.

The Head of Finance pointed out that 15 premises of this nature were already rated in the county, and it was to ensure that some people did not have an unfair competitive advantage that the Co Council had forwarded details of the remainder to the Valuation Office.

“Once a property is valued, the Co Council is obliged to collect rates from it,” Mr Murray emphasised. He also told the meeting that some childcare premises in the county had been paying rates since 2001.

FF councillor Robbie Gallagher said that the solution to this problem lay with the Government. The Council should write to the Minister asking him that no crèches be valued for rates. Supporting the proposals before the meeting, Seamus Coyle (FF) said that if this provision were applied he knew of one premises in Ballybay that would face an annual rates bill of €8,000, and another in Latton that would be paying €15,000. “These are facilities of care and education,” Colr Coyle stated.

FF’s John O’Brien indicated that he was fully supportive of the motions, as did Gary Carville (FG) who emphasised the educational input of all crèche facilities.

P J O’Hanlon (FF) criticised educational facilities being treated in the same manner as retail premises for rates purposes.

Support for the proposals before the meeting was unanimous.

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