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*Businesses like those in Shannon Town Centre will face a rates increase. Photograph: John Mangan

Clare’s county councillors have adopted its revenue budget voting against a calls for a deferral of the decision.

Sixteen councillors voted in favour of the budget with ten against the proposals while two were absent when votes were called. A full breakdown of the vote is available below.

Businesses in the county will now face a 3.8% increase in their rates which was referenced by councillors who voted against the proposal. It is the first time since 2009 that there has been a hike in the commercial rates collected across the county.

An expenditure of €138.7m is provided for in the revenue budget representing an increase of €7.3m over the previous year, housing and roads combined account for 44% of this allocation. The projected capital expenditure over three years is €409m subject income, grants and matching funding.

Chief Executive of Clare County Council, Pat Dowling told Friday’s budgetary meeting that pragmatism and realism was required when assessing the challenges created by COVID-19. He described the Council’s response to the pandemic as “exemplary”. He flagged that close to €50m in business supports was provided by the Council in the past 21 months.

“Such losses cannot and will not continue indefinitely,” Dowling stated. An uncertain period of inflation has muddied the waters, the Kilkee resident professed. Confirmation has yet to be issued on what will happen to the €2.8m in rates lost to the Council when Moneypoint is to close. “There has been a significant reduction from our former vibrant tourism sector which has added to the burden of balancing our finances in 2022”.

Dowling continued, “for over 25 years leading to 2016, Clare County Council carried a deficit on its accounts, at its height it had a deficit of €9m”. He warned that the anticipated income for 2021 was concerning and may see the trend of the last five years reversed. “We are determined not to slip back, the climate has never been so difficult but we must keep to seek our finances on an even keel”.

Head of Finance, Noeleen Fitzgerald advised the meeting that in excess of €5m was included as a loss in their forecast for 2021, “that loss is driven primarily by loss of income resulting from restrictions on business but also additional expenditure incurred during the year, some of it as a result of the pandemic but also the inflationary costs across energy and construction sector as we maintain and carry out refurbishments to buildings”. The proposed spend of €410m from 2022 to 2024 in the draft capital budget was labelled as “very ambitious”.

Arguments put forward by councillors who were supporting the budget hailed the importance of the General Municipal Allocation which remained at €1,273,000 for the coming year in supporting local projects. “People might say cut community grants but it is imperative that businesses see the value of these grants,” Cllr Pat Hayes (FF) stated.

Without an increase, Clare already had the sixth highest rates valuation in the country, Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG) highlighted. He said the county was failed by its Oireachtas members in that money collected for the Local Property Tax (LPT) was not remaining in the county. “It is inherently unfair, it is sending out a dreadful message on Black Friday when businesses are on their knees,” Flynn commented of the rates increase.

Similar views were expressed by Cllr Tony O’Brien (FF), to enforce a rates increase of 3.8% was “very unfair”. He felt the LPT was “the elephant in the room” as he voiced his annoyance with the equalisation fund. Up to €2m from LPT collected in Clare does not remain in the county as it is used to make up for losses in other counties. “I want this message to go loud and clear to our Oireachtas members, we’re not going to carry the can for the inadequacies and inefficiencies for their lack of a voice around the national table in Dáil Éireann”.

Any cuts to the GMA would result in local businesses being asked to support more projects in their area, Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF) believed. “We voted overwhelmingly to increase the local property tax, we asked ordinary homeowners to put their hand in their pocket for services during a very difficult time, it would be disingenuous not to ask businesses to do the same”.

Businesses have experienced “a serious loss” over the past two years, Cllr Pat Daly (FF) outlined. “You can have pandemic payments but people have lost fortunes over the last two years. Pubs and hotels in this town have been hammered”.

Discretion is limited in the Budget, Cllr Alan O’Callaghan (FF) observed. He felt the decision was very tough but said as a rates-payer himself he was facing an increase of €91 if the Budget was passed. The alternative to not supporting the Budget would see potential cuts to the county’s Fire Service or financial backing to community groups. “It is something we have to do, we need to balance our books, it is going to be tough for a lot of businesses. As 28 councillors, we have to make a decision, whatever the outcome we have to represent the people of Clare to the best of our ability, keep the lights on, bring back tourism and get our Airport up and running”.

Nationally Clare’s rates are “already high” without a further increase, Cllr Ian Lynch (IND) noted. He pointed out that businesses will find it easier to trade solely online and this may reduce their need to have a physical shop which will hurt the Council. Ambition and investment is needed to make Clare an attractive place to live and work, “that’s what keeps the tills ringing,” Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG) maintained.

Protections are included in the Budget to support smaller businesses and the hospitality industry, Cllr Shane Talty (FF) felt. “I am a rates payer for 11 years, I didn’t go seeking votes to increase costs on businesses, I looked for the opportunity to represent people to get investment and improvements in our towns and villages. Do we kick to touch on investment and ambition or try to continue with as fair a Budget as we possibly can”.

Rates were labelled by Cllr Mary Howard (FG) as “undemocratic tac on businesses”. She felt there was parallels between the present and 2009 when “the bubble had burst”. Only three counties are considering upping their rates, she highlighted.

“They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas but Cllr O’Callaghan and Cllr Talty are rates-payers and they are in favour of the Budget,” Cllr Pat Burke (FG) noted. He said the value of the GMA and what it brings to East Clare such as footpaths, street furniture and public lighting serves as a boost to local businesses. The GMA was hailed by Cllr Pat O’Gorman as “a lifeline to all of our communities”.

Businesses are “hanging by a thread,” Cllr Clare Colleran-Molloy (FF) warned as she accused the Council of rolling over on a challenge.

Major projects need to be funded, Cllr Joe Cooney (FG) argued as he proposed the Budget be adopted, this was seconded by Cllr Hayes. “A balanced budget is the only way to consider the progress. Anytime there is change, there is concern. I have been in business for a lot of years, if we can put a balanced budget in place, businesses will benefit,” Cooney outlined.

Pleas issued by Cllr PJ Kelly (FF), Cllr Ian Lynch (IND) and Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG) to adjourn the meeting so that different solutions could be put forward were rejected. Kelly announced that it would be the first time he was voting against the Budget.

How they voted;

FOR: Cllr Joe Cooney (FG), Cllr Pat Hayes (FF), Cllr Pat Burke (FG), Cllr Alan O’Callaghan (FF), Cllr John Crowe (FG), Cllr Michael Begley (IND), Cllr PJ Ryan (IND), Cllr Pat McMahon (FF), Cllr Gerry Flynn (IND), Cllr Pat O’Gorman (FF), Cllr Shane Talty (FF), Cllr Joe Killeen (FF), Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG), Cllr Bill Chambers (FF), Cllr Gabriel Keating (FG), Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF).

AGAINST: Cllr Mary Howard (FG), Cllr Mark Nestor (FF), Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG), Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy (FF), Cllr Paul Murphy (FG), Cllr Ann Norton (IND), Cllr Pat Daly (FF), Cllr Tony O’Brien (FF), Cllr PJ Kelly (FF), Cllr Ian Lynch (IND).

NOT PRESENT: Cllr Liam Grant (GP), Cllr Donna McGettigan (SF)

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