Council struggles to agree budget in nine-hour session

It took councillors a staggering nine hours to agree the 2015 budget for Westmeath County Council on Monday - which was eventually passed by a narrow majority of 10 to seven.

The marathon session got underway at 10am, but ended up being adjourned on three separate occasions as councillors met in their party groups to discuss certain aspects of the budget, which was the first to incorporate the books of Westmeath County Council and the former Athlone Town Council.

The main sticking points were two measures being proposed by the council to encourage business back into the county’s vacant premises.

The first was a Business Incentive Scheme (BIS ) which proposed the payment of a grant of 60 per cent of the annual commercial rate, in the first year, to anyone who occupies a vacant commercial property. This would fall to 40 per cent in the second year and 20 per cent in the third.

The second proposal was that the waiver for rates on vacant premises be reduced from 100 per cent to 80 per cent, which would generate an estimated €285,000 to help fund the BIS.

While there was broad support for the BIS, councillors were bitterly divided on whether the waiver should be reduced at all.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil members felt the waiver should remain at 100 per cent, with Cllr Paul Daly (FF ) saying it would be unfair that the circumstances of those who own the vacant buildings would not be taken into account.

To make up the shortfall of €285,000, councillors suggested a number of cuts under different headings, including a decrease in contribution to housing grants of €70,000; roads €100,000; and festivals and events, €40,000. They also suggested the grant under the BIS be reduced from 60 to 40 per cent in the first year.

However Sinn Féin, Labour, and Independent councillors vehemently opposed these measures, with Cllr Michael O’Brien (Ind ) saying they were “hitting the most vulnerable”.

“The council gave us an initiative to try and kickstart the business sector, and here we are pouring cold water over it,” added Cllr Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran (Ind ).

Cllr Una D’Arcy (SF ) said “You have sat here all day and let us debate, and then go behind closed doors... and disregard the people who need housing, roads, new avenues of business development.”

Meanwhile Cllr Paul Hogan (SF ) slammed the “austerity alliance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael” whom he said had revised the budget “to protect the business people of the county but attack vulnerable people and communities”.

However Cllr Peter Burke (FG ) said no choices were easy in politics, and that all decisions were being made in a transparent fashion.

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