Tense times in County Hall
It got a little tense in County Hall on Monday as councillors voted on a budget for 2023 that looks to protect smaller businesses.
After much heated debate and a well-needed recess, councillors passed Budget 2023 with 32 votes to 18. The agreed budget amounts to €403 million, an increase of €31m over Budget 2022.
Included in the draft budget initially presented to the chamber was a 3.5% increase in rates for businesses paying over €2,000 a year. This follows an increase of 3% in Budget 2022. Getting discussions underway, Mayor of County Cork Cllr Danny Collins proposed an amendment to bring the rates threshold up to €10,000 per year in an effort to protect already struggling small and medium sized businesses from increased expenses.
An amendment bringing the threshold from €2,000 to €7,000 was later agreed between councillors and the executive. The €2,000 threshold had originally been set in an effort to counteract the income shortfall predicted as a result of September’s vote by members to freeze Local Property Tax for the next 2 years. Many elected members were in agreement with the mayor, however Fine Geal party leader Cllr John Paul O’Shea said his party would not support any budget which included an increase in rates.
“Business people have to deal with the soaring costs of energy with many getting bills this very month of 100-200% increase on their previous bills. I think the decision to increase the rates for all by 3.5% is the wrong one and one we will not be supporting today,” said Cllr O’Shea.
His comments were met with anger across the room with Fianna Fáil Cllr Gearoid Murphy accused Fine Gael of making the “most irresponsible proposal” he’s heard in his 5 years in the chamber.
“Passing a balanced budget is possibly the most important and solemn statutory duty that we have as councillors. To vote against this budget without first suggesting a concrete alternative is frankly letting down the communities who elected them,” said Cllr Murphy.
He also asked why no Fine Gael members on the Cork County Council Corporate Policy Group (CPG) had suggested any alternatives in the lead up to the budget.
“Did they just sit on their hands during the CPG for the last couple of months and not make suggestions? It's just frankly astounding,” he said.
Responding to Cllr Murphy, Fine Gael Cllr Gerard Murphy said he had “no intention of taking lectures from anybody in Fianna Fáil” and that raising rates at a time when inflation is so unpredictable was fiscally irresponsible.
He said: “When Fine Gael had control of this council, our reserves were up to €17/18 million. Fianna Fáil and their colleagues have now depleted that reserve to negligible at this stage.
“We have a situation facing into next year whereby we can't raise the LPT, we have a commitment that you won't raise the rates, and our reserves are gone. That's not fiscal responsibility.”
A recurring demand from elected members throughout Monday’s budget meeting was that the Cork County Council executive would commit to providing more outdoor staff throughout the county.
Fianna Fáil Cllr Seamus McGrath said there is a county wide need, not just to maintain but, to increase outdoor staffing numbers and said he and his party were disappointed at the council’s lack of progress on the issue.
Fine Gael Cllr Michael Creed said: “Would it not be possible to make the seasonal staff full-time. Would that not alleviate some of the problem?”
In response, Cork County Council Chief Executive Tim Lucey said he would be happy to sit down in the new year to look at the issue: “I'm not in a position to give a commitment to increasing beyond the 370 that we have provided for in our workforce plan. I am absolutely open to looking at that. I just want to leave it at that at this point in time,” said the chief executive.