It’s estimated that Westmeath county councillors will receive in the region of €100,000 in conference fees and expenses this year.
Figures provided by the council indicate that they expected to pay out €68,700 in travel and subsistence for attending conferences to the 23 members in the 12 months of 2009.
On top of that, €25,000 is budgeted to cover the actual fees for conferences, training, and seminars and a further €6,000 for foreign travel and subsistence.
The information is revealed in a questionnaire sent to the council by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government at the request of Minister John Gormley during the autumn.
The estimated 2009 total of €99,700 for conference related payments is less than in previous years.
The total amount paid out for conference related expenses in 2007 was €133,460 and in 2008 that total was down by €11,000 to €122,265. It is a fraction of the estimated total cost of payments to councillors which, according to council figures should reach €1,162,278 this year.
Leas Cathaoirleach Dan McCarthy says the conference money is well spent.
“Looking at a figure like that [€99,700], it’s a huge lot of money but the benefits to the councillors are enormous,” he told the Advertiser.
He says councillors who are informed on issues are in a better position to approve or question propositions on the basis of what they learn at conferences. Documentation is also provided for reference at a later date.
He himself has attended “very, very, few conferences this year” but those he attends are mostly to do with planning, which he says is an important issue.
There is no formal or organised system of recording the knowledge that councillors get at conference, rather they get a chance to show what they’ve learned when an issue is raised at a council meeting, as was the case at the December meeting when a number of councillors referred to what they had learned at a conference on housing.
Despite claims in the national media that councillors sometimes sign in at conferences to claim expenses and don’t stay, Cllr McCarthy says most councillors are “very happy to get to a conference and listen”.
“Very few” would manipulate the system, he says.