‘Glory days’ are gone as Clonmel adapts to reduced budget and spending power

A 9% drop in the Local Government Fund for 2012, coupled with reduced revenue income, saw Clonmel Borough Council adopt a tight budget that was down a total of €232,098 compared to last year and €1.8m when compared to 2008 figures. But it was adopted with limited opposition and for the first times since 2009, the Mayor’s casting vote was unnecessary for the budget to pass.

A 9% drop in the Local Government Fund for 2012, coupled with reduced revenue income, saw Clonmel Borough Council adopt a tight budget that was down a total of €232,098 compared to last year and €1.8m when compared to 2008 figures. But it was adopted with limited opposition and for the first times since 2009, the Mayor’s casting vote was unnecessary for the budget to pass.

Despite the financial challenges, Town Manager Sinead Carr said that it was important that they work together in a positive manner to maintain Clonmel as the strong and vibrant town it is. Referring to the ‘glory days’ of past years, Ms. Carr said that life was a ‘lot easier’ back then and added that they were now in an extremely challenging economic environment.

Despite this and the Council’s ‘tight income stream’, no increases were applied to parking charges or commercial rates for businesses this year. But non-domestic water charges did not escape a price hike with increased costs associated with waste management, water and sewerage resulting in a .5c increase in both metered water and wastewater charges, bringing the cost of each to €1.10 per 1,000 litres. Additionally water meter rental costs will rise from €60 to €100.

In addition to a freeze on parking charges, the Council agreed to continue to offer people free parking for a fixed number of Saturdays during the month of December. Many councillors commented on the success of the current initiative, which offers free parking on each of the five Saturdays in December, in all Council-operated car parks. According to Mayor Darren Ryan, a number of businesses had reported an increase in trade on those days and were ‘delighted’ with that.

Despite lobbying by Clonmel Chamber of Commerce for a commercial rates reduction this year, a rates freeze was all that the Chamber and local businesses received. Ms. Carr said that maintaining the current level was taking account of the ongoing difficulties that rate payers are facing and she pointed out that this level is approximately 10% lower than the average rate of all Borough Councils of a similar size in the country. Gross income from commercial rates for 2012 will account for 37% of the Council’s total revenue income,

The Council’s budget for 2012 will be €16,657,894 but when unpaid commercial rates are considered the amount falls to €15,283,694 representing a €528,892 drop on last year.

An early attempt by Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) member Cllr Pat English to adjourn the meeting, in order to request the Government to reinstate 2011 funding levels was met with no support outside of the WUAG group. His proposal was put to a vote but defeated by seven votes to five.

A major issue arising from the meeting related to Clonmel’s hard water issue, which has been raised in the Council chamber on many occasions over the past number of years. Cllr Richie Molloy said that as a public representative it was one of the issues that he has received the most grief over. While water charges currently apply to non-domestic customers, domestic water metering will come into effect in the future. Cllr Molloy proposed that a letter be sent by Clonmel Borough Council to the environment minister Phil Hogan TD, requesting the introduction of a grant to assist people who are faced with costs of up to €700 for water softener installation in their homes, to combat the destructive impact that hard water is having on appliances such as washing machines, showers and electric kettles. He received the support of the Council for this to be carried out.

A total of €45,000 will be spent on tourism promotion in Clonmel in 2012, a €9,000 increase on 2011. Confirmation that this full amount will be used solely for that purpose and to support local groups, organisations and initiatives that help attract people to the town, was welcomed by the councillors. However concern was expressed about the future of the tourist office, located on the grounds of the Main Guard. Currently operated by participants of the CE scheme, any potential cuts to that scheme, as proposed in Budget 2012, could question the future of the tourist office. And it was agreed that the Council should give any assistance that it can in ensuring that this service continues.

In 2012 the operation of the street cleaning service is expected to rise by €30,000, while the litter warden service will cost €5,000. So far in 2011, 16 litter fines at a cost of €150 have been issued, but this figure was considered extremely low by councillors who expressed concern about the prevalence of dog dirt all around the town and the urgent need to tackle it.

Cllr Teresa Ryan said that the town was ‘disgusting’ and ‘gross’ and added that what dog owners are allowing their pets to do is a ‘disgrace’. She said that the litter warden would not be able to tackle this problem on their own. Cllr Molloy said that it was gone to the stage where they would have to start power-washing the streets outside schools because children were walking in the dog dirt and then bringing it into the classroom.

Cllr Billy Shoer was highly critical of the rubbish caused by discarded takeaway wrappers and said it was his understanding that the takeaways have a responsibility to clean up outside their premises. He asked why the Council is not enforcing that law. But administrative officer Martin Nolan told Cllr Shoer that this requirement is for mobile outlets only and not permanent ones. Councillors agreed to introduce a bye-law in 2012 that will require such outlets to take some responsibility for keeping the fronts of their premises clean. There was general praise for the excellent efforts of the Tidy Towns Committee members who work all year to keep the town clean.

The sale of the Council’s refuse service earlier this year was also lamented by the members of the WUAG who said that the privatisation of the service had done a ‘disservice’ to the town.

Cllr Brian O’Donnell said that the Council will eventually end up paying the price for it because people will be unable to pay for the service and will illegally dump their rubbish. He said he is already seeing evidence of this in some areas.

The cost incurred by the council for conferences or junkets, was once again a source of contention for WUAG members who opposed the €25,200 that will be spent in 2012 for this purpose. This money will be divided between the seven councillors who support council funding of conferences and €4,200 of this amount will be used for mobile phone expenses.

Cllr Pat English said that this was a ‘total waste of money’ and proposed that the money should be used to fund ‘essential works’ by the Council’. This was seconded by Cllr Ryan who asked if councillors who sit on Clonmel Borough Council and South Tipperary County Council receive two junket payments annually.

When Mayor Ryan confirmed that this was the case she said that councillors should forego at least one set of the expenses. The ‘ordinary person on the street is being screwed right, left and centre’ she said. Cllr Shoer said that this junket fund was a substantial amount of money at a time when the Council was being forced to cut back and he said that it should be up to each political party to look at educating their councillors and paying for it. “Why should the tax payers have to pay for it,” he asked. However when put to a vote, Cllr English’s motion was defeated by seven to five. As expected WUAG English, Shoer, Ryan, O’Donnell and McGee all voted against the budget but were defeated by two votes. The budget was proposed by Fianna Fail’s Cllr Siobhan Ambrose and seconded by Fine Gael’s Cllr Dinny Dunne.