The end of the year gives us time to reflect and to take stock of what we have done. It is also a time when the pace of work slows and we spend time with family and friends, share gifts and indulge. The picture of warm hearth and a decorated tree comes into the minds eye. This, or some similar variation, is how it ought to be for all.
In taking stock of this year and indeed the entire five years of this Galway City Council term there are some points to reflect positively upon, such as beginning to finally build some social houses after ten years of barren production. However there are things which do not reflect positively. How we deal with them will determine if we can change for the better.
Last month I raised the issue of the cost of a chauffeured luxury car for the Mayor of Galway. It has been in the council budget for decades but it was never listed as an individual item on that budget. I reasoned that in a city, seized with automotive gridlock the need to seat the Mayor, of any given year, in a leather heated seat while he (all five have been men ) is motorised around from traffic jam to traffic jam is wasteful. I opined further that it’s a bad example and must indeed be frustrating for the Mayor when he could walk or take the bus and arrive much quicker.
However our Sinn Féin proposal in the budget to abolish this perk was defeated. We are not part of the ruling pact of Fine Gael/Labour/Independents. This is the pact that decides on the budget and elects the Mayor.
I then asked for a line item on how much this costs and for good measure I also asked how much does the Mayor spend on plane tickets, chauffeured cars overseas and hotel suites abroad. I was told that it would take time to get that answer. I replied that I had the time and I just received the answer in writing from Galway City Corporate Services, which runs the Mayor’s office this week.
I was shocked to read the numbers and as I went down through the last five years and the projected costs for the remainder of the current term I began to reflect on our priorities as local legislators. It can be overwhelming as our charge is broad and very busy with housing always emerging as a priority. Focus and hard work is required from all and it takes effort to try and make a difference.
As a local government we are charged with being the statutory local housing authority, it is our responsibility to provide social houses, to liaise with Approved Housing Bodies and Homeless Agencies. We are the one who must deliver on this charge. It is one of our largest responsibilities and its impact on Galway citizens is profound. We can deliver on our charge and profoundly change the current status quo or we cannot and have an equally profoundly devastating impact on our same fellow citizens.
We fight for progress, we try, we sometimes work against each other and sometimes we get the job done. But our progress is not enough, we need to try and work harder as a full council. Our actions as a collective make a difference and not always a positive difference.
We have more homeless now in our city than ever before, form our latest figures, which are three months old, there are 304 persons homeless in our city. We have 59 Galway City families in emergency accommodation, 46 of those families are in hotels and B&Bs. We have 4,027 heads of household on our social housing waiting list. All these numbers include Galway children.
For our homeless children and their parents, this is not a time where they reflect on a good year, seated before a warm hearth, bathed in security of tenure. The love and support those parents give their children is no different to that given by any other parent. The hopes and dreams they share and encourage are the same as any other Galway citizen but they are in the nightmare of homelessness.
It is not a situation of their making, our homeless crisis is a political made crisis. It is the direct result of decisions and votes by public representatives. Every action has a reaction and the vote to spend money on one item takes it away from another. This is not a difficult concept to comprehend.
I looked again at the written answer I received from the Mayors office on the money spent and funded to be spent by the five Mayors of this council term. The number makes me catch my breath. On the chauffeured car and the trips abroad to Galway’s twinned cities it totals €468,402.09, almost half a million euro.
I can’t support a budget that allocates such an amount of money to what I view as non-essential luxury items. I along with my fellow Sinn Féin Councillors have never voted for this. We offered again an amendment to end this spend but it was defeated, such is democracy. But democracy also needs informed, factual and vigorous debate.
I knew that the car was an expense we could do without, I did not, until this week, know the full cost of it and the cost of twinning trips abroad for the Mayor. The facts delivered in such clear and unambiguous terms just further reinforce my resolve.
I want us to spend that money on social and affordable housing, and particularly while we have Galway children homeless and so many of our fellow citizens on our housing waiting list it is wrong to put almost half a million euro into luxury expenditure.
As public representatives, particularly as local representatives, we have a budget we must prioritise. We are all responsible for our decisions and actions and we will be judged by our deeds. That is fair and it stands as the only way a person should be judged. My view is that it is indefensible to defend this kind of spending in a time of the worst housing and homeless crisis in history.
For those who are charged to deliver the solutions on housing and homelessness to be the ones defending this expenditure almost beggars belief. All politicians are not the same. To think that we all are the same only helps to preserve a status quo that works for some but leaves so many more in the street. This is your tax money we are spending and you should be aware of the decisions that are made with your money and in your name.
So while we all reflect this year on what we have done and what we have failed to do, we know only one certainty, the future belongs to no one.
Our actions in 2019 will determine how our lives will be shaped. My hope is that we can prioritise our responsibilities so that the only thing chauffeured out of Galway City Council in 2019 is unnecessary extravagance.