In spite of a major campaign by Athlone Chamber of Commerce to persuade the council to reduce commercial rates by 5 per cent, and a late call from Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne to consider a 2 per cent rate reduction, councillors voted against a change in rates at Wednesday’s Athlone Town Council budget meeting.
While acknowledging the difficulties faced by businesses, there was general agreement that there was no scope in the budget to allow for any reduction in rates.
Cllr Mark Cooney said that while it was impossible to ignore the chamber’s suggestions that the council was seeking to harm rather than to encourage the local business community, such a small reduction would make very little difference to the individual rate-payer.
“The inference is that if we fail to reduce rates we will decimate business. But even if we considered a 5 per cent reduction in rates, it would have little or no impact on rate payers, it might mean €450 less over the year and that is not a make or break situation. People are much better served by us maintaining services as they are.”
Cllr Kieran Molloy agreed, saying it was “a very fair budget” and that they had done well not to increase rates. “I take exception to the chamber’s suggestion, as the council has tried to help business. A reduction would only mean something to those paying huge rates. For what this council is providing and the work put in by the staff, by not increasing rates for the past two years this council has done well.”
Cllr Sheila Buckley Byrne was the only councillor to suggest a reduction in rates, but her proposal to cut rates by 2 per cent was quickly shot down and failed to secure a seconder among her fellow councillors.
“I know there is no great appetite to do anything with rates but the chamber presentation is worth thinking about - even a reduction of 2 per cent. It’s a small amount but I don’t accept it won’t make a difference, businesses are looking for any small help they can get.”
She suggested the shortfall in the council’s income be recouped from the county charge of almost €1.7 million which Athlone Town Council will pay to Westmeath County Council in 2012.
However county manager Dan McLoughlin said the figure allocated for the county charge already falls short of the amount needed to cover the cost of Athlone Town Council to the county.
“The county charge is not what Athlone Town Council owes but what it is able to cover. To ask to reduce the county charge, you are asking Westmeath County Council to reopen the budget process and find €200,000 somewhere,” he said.
Cllr Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran pointed out that this was the first time that Cllr Buckley Byrne had raised the idea of a 2 per cent reduction in rates, while Cllr Aengus O’Rourke said it was “an ill thought-through motion”.
“As an average rate-payer in the town, a 2 per cent reduction would benefit me to the tune of €1.22 per week - it wouldn’t make the slightest difference,” he said.
Cllr Paul Hogan added that a 2 per cent reduction would make a difference of less than €2 per week to more than 87 per cent of the town’s rate-payers.
“Our budget is progressive and forward-thinking. Athlone Town Council is seen as progressive, we are seen as a town that puts money aside, and the businesses in the town are getting value for money,” he said.
Meanwhile Cllr Gabrielle McFadden said any reduction in rates would mean cuts to council jobs and services.