No cut in frontline services as county budget is passed

Westmeath County Council’s budget has been passed without amendment and with no frontline services cut.

Despite an attempt by Fianna Fail councillors to introduce what they described as a token rate reduction for business to show the council is on the side of business, there was overwhelming support for a detailed and tightly structured budget.

The budget sees minimal reductions in frontline services, with the emphasis on reducing costs and improving income streams.

The council reduced its costs by 13.5 per cent or €9.1million since 2008, through cuts in staffing, reassignment of staff, increased efficiencies, and sharing services with other local authorities. But there has also been a €1.4m cut in central Government funding to the council.

In spite of this, county manager Danny McLoughlin said all primary service budgets have been maintained at 2011 levels in areas including housing and road maintenance, water and sewerage, fire service, amenity, and open space maintenance.

Matching finance for grant aid, for example, for housing grants for the elderly, has also been retained at 2011’s rate.

The council has also attempted to maximize its income, with increased emphasis on enforcement across all areas, including waste management, littering, parking, environment, and planning and development.

Speaking after the meeting acting head of finance Jimmy Dalton said it had been a very difficult budget and the executive was quite pleased no major amendments had been suggested. He referred to the impact of the Government cut on the budget, saying “in that sort of environment it’s never easy”. The coming year will be difficult. Some costs, particularly energy are going up and the council may suffer if people don’t pay the proposed Household Charge.

Some 26 per cent of the council’s revenue comes from the general Government grant and that amounts to €16m next year. The new Household Charge is designed to see taxpayers make up much of that.

That €16m is normally paid in four instalments and “in 2012 the payment of those instalments will be dependant on the collection of the new household charge,” he said.

Danny McLoughlin told the meeting that slow payments will have a cash-flow implication for the council.

Athlone’s Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran said the executive of the council should be admired for not being one of the councils which is “up to its eyes in debt”.

He described the budget as balanced, as did Cllr Frank McDermott, who proposed that the 2012 estimates be adopted.

“Westmeath County Council is a service provider and it’s a good one,” said Mr McDermott.

“We should be man and woman enough to defend it,” he added as his Fianna Fail colleagues called for a rate reduction of between 1 and 2.3 per cent.

The Fianna Fáil amendment was rejected by all non Fianna Fail councillors and all councillors outside Fianna Fail went on to support the adoption of the budget.

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