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Behind closed doors diplomacy to strike budget deal

Campbell and manager

BY C.J.MCGINLEY

A SERIES of behind closed doors meetings are continuing this afternoon (Tuesday) as attempts are made to broker a deal to pass Donegal County Council’s budget for 2015.

Since the meeting began at 10am there has been three adjournments (by 4pm) and it could be 6pm before a final set of proposals to break the impasse are presented to the full council.

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The Chief Executive Officer, Mr Seamus Neely (pictured above left with Cathaoirleach John Campbell), Director of Finance, Mr Garry Martin and senior council officials have held talks with the representatives of Fianna Fail and Independents who have 11 and 10 elected members respectively. They are due to meet the Sinn Fein and Fine Gael party whips before 6pm.

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

The council has €17 million euro 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. However, it is expected members will back the broad thrust of the budget, but with significant adjustments.

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.

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.

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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 hy 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 €29million.

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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