It is with some bemusement that I noted the recent contributions in Seanad Éireann regarding the future of local authority arrangements in Galway and, in particular, the voicing of opposition to the amalgamation of the Galway county and city councils.
Those contributions purported to reflect the views of local politicians across the city and county. However, there is a growing number of local authority members who are seeing both the logic and desirability of a merger into one 'Greater Galway Authority' which would bring increased funding, resources, and staffing to Galway.
A council in crisis
Cllr James Charity.
From the perspective of the Galway County Council, the Seanad debate failed to recognise, or acknowledge, that our council is a local authority in severe crisis and one which has been meandering from one budget to the next for more than a decade, striving to avoid an arrival at breaking point which is unfortunately coming down the tracks faster than any locomotive train.
It is difficult for me as the current Cathaoirleach of County Galway and the chair of the Galway County Council to have to publicly put on the record that the citizens of County Galway are being failed by local government arrangements in this county. I realise there will be many who simply do not care whether or not a local authority is under funded or in crisis. The reality is that such a crisis affects every community, village, parish, and town in Galway.
So what is the crisis? Simply put, Central Government funding for County Galway meant that in 2020, a spend of €714 was budgeted for every person living in our county to provide public services. This is the second lowest per captia budget in the State, second only to Meath at €713.
Comparatively, the 2020 budget in Mayo allowed for €1,135 per person; Clare €1,078 per person; Leitrim €1,237 per person; Longford €1,175 per person; and Roscommon €950 per person. Galway is not even in the same league, never mind playing on the same ballpark, when it comes to its national funding allocations.
The county council is currently without approximately 120 critical staff, at a minimum, which it needs to adequately provide services across a county of our size - everything from ground operatives to senior executive staff. Indeed, the expert report into local government arrangements noted we had just 4.2 staff members per 1,000 population, a figure which was noted to be vastly below where it should be.
The resultant effect is a hugely increased workload for those staff who are employed in the local authority, with a consequent impact on staff morale, stress, and high staff turnover. An inability to attract external talent and the frequent loss of key management figures also feature. As Cathaoirleach, I have genuine concerns for the welfare of these staff.
'Limerick's authorities were amalgamated and now has increased financial resources, staffing, and democratic accountability. I look at our situation in Galway and despair'
All of the problems in staffing are foreseeable, all avoidable, and all require additional finance to bring staff compliments up to standard so our citizens get the public services they want and rightfully expect across the county, and our staff get the support they need.
So when you ask where are the council workers to fix those potholes outside your door, or where are the council wardens to ticket illegally parked cars in your town, or where are the staff to carry out repairs on local authority housing, or where are the staff to inspect the unauthorised development in your village, or to investigate your complaint of illegal dumping, please remember that figure: 120.
That is 120 key staff and 120 essential positions unfilled. And not just for one week. Not just for one year. For over a decade. In the second largest County in Ireland.
Lack of help from Oireachtas members
Over the course of the last 10 years, every Cathaoirleach, myself included, has pleaded with our national TDs and Senators to address this crisis. However the situation has gotten worse and worse.
The county council's budget has dropped not by millions but by tens of millions. The introduction of Local Property Tax, heralded by the Government in 2014 as a mechanism by which local services would be enhanced, merely replaced previous funding streams that were discontinued, and went hand in hand with a consistent reduction in local government grants amounting to approximately €15 million per annum.
Like my predecessors, I have tried to address this. Only last September, a near full house of our local TDs and Senators attended a meeting in Aras an Chontae where myself, the CEO, and senior executive staff, including the Director of Finance, outlined the perilous situation our local authority finds itself in.
Since then, only one TD has reverted to me in any respect regarding that meeting. Just one. An opposition TD. No Government TD, no Senator, no further follow up of any kind. No indication of discussions, direction or representations, much less of urgently needed funding. Nothing.
I do not reveal this to embarrass them or to play politics. I reveal it as the reality of the situation. The lack of help and assistance being received from a national level from our Oireachtas representatives has long been the elephant in the room of our local authority chamber, with party member predecessors far more confined than I am in being able to openly challenge their colleagues on the national stage.
Property tax hike?
In the absence of getting support from our Oireachtas members, both the CEO and I took the direct approach of meeting with the Minister for Local Government ahead of last year's budget. The minister's response, to put it mildly, was less than appreciative of the problems being faced by our Local Authority. The suggested solution from the Minister? Increase Local Property Tax across County Galway.
'Since elected to Galway County Council in 2014, I have never worked with a permanent CEO. The most senior position in our council has remained a non-permanent position throughout that time'
Increase commercial rates across County Galway? That means targeting householders and businesses who are already struggling with the effects of the pandemic. No explanation for the consistent reduction in central government funding over the years. No recognition of the per capita discrepancy across the country. No help.
The result? For the first time in the history of Galway County Council, nearly a quarter of a million euro had to be taken from the capital account last October to balance a budget in order to maintain existing service levels in Galway. A capital account that should be providing infrastructure, recreational developments, and key projects in our areas.
A merger is the solution
In view of all the foregoing, I find the Seanad contributions regarding the future of local authority arrangements in Galway to be entirely unhelpful. More of the same for our county is no longer good enough. It has not been good enough for the best part of a decade, and it is long past time we shouted stop.
Since being elected to Galway County Council in 2014, I have never worked with a permanent CEO. The most senior position in our council has remained an 'acting' non-permanent position throughout that time - as have most of the other senior executive positions. In that time, we have lost hugely experienced people due to the ongoing crisis. In the weeks and months ahead, I genuinely fear we will lose even more.
The suspicion has long been that this has remained the case in anticipation of the proposed merger. Owing to the opposition to that merger, which notably occurred in the Seanad and not in any local authority chamber, the fear now is that we are being left to drift from crisis to crisis until something gives and a catastrophe emerges. This is not good enough for our county.
I look at Limerick city and county council, an authority which was amalgamated and finds itself with increased financial resources, staffing, and democratic accountability. Then I look at our situation in Galway and I despair.
If our Oireachtas members are going to oppose amalgamation, especially those in Government parties, my simple question to them is this: When is the extra funding coming?
James Charity is an Independent councillor for the Athenry-Oranmore district and the Cathaoirleach of Galway County Council.