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A council budget deal now ‘likely’

TG4 picture of council budget estimates

Picture courtesy of TG4

BY C.J.MCGINLEY

IT looks increasingly likely Donegal County Council will agree to pass a financial budget.

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A series of behind closed door meetings are continuing as attempts are made to broker a deal.

The meeting is now adjourned, for the seventh time today, until 7.50pm to allow for the four party whips on the council to meet in closed session.

According to Cathaoirleach Cllr John Campbell the party whips are making ‘progress’ but it is not yet clear if enough has been achieved to avert members from having to return another day to pass the budget.

Earlier this evening members had appeared resigned to returning another day to strike a deal. Friday had been mentnioned as the day for the final deal to be struck.

However, Independent Cllr Frank McBrearty, remained hopeful saying there was ‘significant’ progress being made and hoped a deal could be struck this evening.

“We are on journey and the train is going well,” he said.

There has been seven adjournments (up to 7.30pm) so far today as senior management met with key figures from each of the party groupings on the council to break the impasse.

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The council has €17 million less to spend than in 2014 and it will cause financial headaches for members and staff as they strike to balance the books and develop services in 2015.

While members appear reasonably happy to support the broad thrust of the budget, with adjustments, there are stumbling blocks.

While they have not been aired publicly yet, they centre around areas such as proposed cuts of €1.4 million for specific roads grants, reducing service ‘supports to members’ such as IT and human resources by €1.4 million and reducing higher education grants by almost €1 million.

Members are also imploring on the council executive to find extra funding for their Development Fund Initiative to support local community groups, sporting groups, parents committees and subsiding car ferries.

Members are also seeking extra funds for flagship tourism projects similar to The Greenway in Mayo.

The CEO, Mr Seamus Neely has acknowledged there are significant ‘funding gaps’ but a number of ‘exceptional measures’ had been deployed in the budget to tackle this problem.

Savings targeted include €1.5 million in purchasing power for goods and services and a controversial proposal to cut the specific roads grant by €1.4 million. The overall cut to the roads budget is €4 million.

The executive is also deferring an additional €981,000 in principal payments on certain Non-Mortgage loans and reducing by €1.1 million ‘the amount from non recurring inter-authority activity’.

The council is also planning to collect €2.6 million in NPPR charges in 2015, saving €1.4 million from the sale of housing assets retained by the council to balance the books.

The executive are also proposing not to pay principal on certain mortgage loans. Instead they will pay interest only saving €2.6 million in 2015.

Mr Neely said while the financial challenges would curtail ‘expansion’ there was an opportunity to ‘build on what has been achieved in a planned and structured manner’.

The council plans to spend over €131 million next year, with 34 per cent of this on payroll and staff costs. Last year the council spent €148.9 million.

The Chief Executive Officer, Mr Seamus Neely (pictured above left with Cathaoirleach John Campbell), Director of Finance, Mr Garry Martin and senior council official held talks with the representatives of Fianna Fail and Independents who have 11 and 10 elected members respectively.

They also met the nine Sinn Fein representatives and the seven elected councillors from the Fine Gael party.

It comes against the backdrop of what the County Manager has described as significant ‘financial challenges’ in 2015 as the council seeks to maintain front line services and foster economic activity.

For the first time in five years the council is planning to recruit 15-20 extra workers next year to ‘prepare plans’ for individual projects in roads, housing and tourism and capital projects if they arise.

Last year it took a marathon 42 hour meeting, including 26 adjournments over four days amid fears the council would be before an early hours of the morning deal was struck with council members.

In a wide ranging report to members of the council at the annual budget estimates meeting in Lifford on Tuesday morning CEO, Mr Seamus Neely stressed roads funding, housing maintenance, economic development and developing cross border opportunities would be key objectives next year.

The CEO acknowledged there were significant ‘funding gaps’ but a number of ‘exceptional measures’ had been deployed in the budget to tackle this problem.

Savings targeted include €1.5million in purchasing power for goods and services and a controversial proposal to cut the specific roads grant by €1.4million.

The executive is also deferring an additional €981,000 in principal payments on certain Non-Mortgage loans and reducing by €1.1million ‘the amount from non recurring inter-authority activity’.

The council is also planning to collect €2.6million in NPPR charges in 2015, saving €1.4million from the sale of housing assets retained by the council to balance the books.

Mr Neely said while the financial challenges would curtail ‘expansion’ there was an opportunity to ‘build on what has been achieved in a planned and structured manner’.

The Chief Executive and his senior staff, headed up by Director of Finance, Mr Garry Martin, are introducing a new five per cent rates reduction for small businesses’ in Donegal next year.

The move is part of an effort by the council to assist small businesses’ in what Mr Neely has described as a ‘challenging business environment’.

There are 5,343 rate payers in the county and the total amount due to be collected is expected to be over €29 million.

No rate payer will pay any more in 2015 than they did this year due to the adoption of a ‘harmonised rate’ for the county to reflect the amalgamation of former county and town council areas.

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