Fine Gael’s Pat Whelan has launched a political attack, just before his political retirement, suggesting it’s time to consider whether the country can afford non-rateable town councils.
Financially there is a cost saving to be made, as each town council has its own town clerk, town engineer, and a Director of Services who attends the meetings. There is also the administration of the council’s small budget – “that layer of administration that could be got rid of.”
“At the present time the way things are with the economy, it’s just a talking shop and a drain on the rate payers.”
As junior ministers and Dáil committees come under pressure to justify their existence, should town councils go?
“Most definitely yes. We have to look at everything across the board. The Government was very quick when they wanted to fund the budget and cut 3 per cent right across and neglected themselves. We have to sit down and just look at everything. There’s going to have to be cuts, because people won’t be in employment to pay taxes.”
He also says it’s “very, very hard to get anything done” and gives the example of a litter bin and phone box on Dominick Street causing “a major obstruction on one of the busiest thoroughfares” - yet it took three and a half years to move.
Only because he threatened to tie a rope around the bin and pull it out with his car did anything happen.
Whelan says that he wants to give 100 per cent to what he does. “I don’t want to be taking money from ratepayers for sitting at meetings getting nothing done.”
He had “high hopes” for the Better Local Government initiative but the country has simply ended up with “talking shops”.
People “wouldn’t be any worse off at all if there was no Mullingar Town Council,” he says, adding there is no point in these local authorities which are used as a stepping stone by those who fail to get a county council seat or who want to get on in politics.
However, he believes non-rateable town councils do some good in bringing items to the agenda that wouldn’t come up ordinarily at county council level.
“I’d be loath to get rid of it but we need to look at the whole system again; we should be given more powers.”
According to Whelan, the town council’s budget of €140,000 per annum is “peanuts”. He says 70 per cent goes in administration and fees to Town Councillors and of the remaining 30 per cent, half goes to school and traffic wardens – with “nothing much left”.
He also admits that it’s a damning indictment of system that he’s not entitled to know what’s happening at county council level regarding Mullingar.
“I used to go to area meetings being held and sit in the audience in the public gallery and find out what’s going on in my own town - and I am a town councillor.”
“We get our information from the papers, after it being reported at county council meetings.”
He argues this suits each county councillor who is “mindful that an up and coming town councillor might squeeze him out – he’s minding his own patch”.
Despite this, people in Mullingar have high expectations. “They hear the word councillor and don’t distinguish between town councillor with no rating authority and a county councillor who has rating authority.”
“People think town councillors are on serious money like county councillors, but it works out at roughly the equivalent of €80 per week, annually at best €5,000.”
For people like Whelan sitting in the public gallery at a county council meeting it comes at a “horrendous” cost to his own business as an accountant.
There’s “a divide between town council and county council but the county council has all the powers – we’re just a pain in the backside for some of the officialdom, having to account for the few pound that we have.”