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€137m budget to run county voted through

Denise McNamara

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A budget of nearly €137 million has been adopted for Galway County Council for next year, with an eleventh-hour extra allocation from the Department of Environment to partially offset a big shortfall from a decreased rates valuation for utilities divided up by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors.

The interim Chief Executive Kevin Kelly reminded councillors there was no provision for contingencies in the 2016 budget which he described as challenging. There was €104m earmarked for gross expenditure and €32m spending for capital projects.

Commercial rates would remain unchanged for a seventh year at €66.59, with the exception of Ballinasloe which had its rate increased by €3 to €55. Almost half the businesses in Ballinasloe will see rates jump by €105 a year, with a plan to bring rates in line with other county towns by 2024.

A provision of €100,000 has been set aside to offset the cost of providing free parking for two hours across county towns, with municipal district areas to decide whether to introduce the measure in the New Year in exchange for a reduction in their roads budget.

Free all-day parking in the lead-up to Christmas in county towns has been agreed.

A gap of €750,000 emerged in the books when the Valuation Office revealed that it had set rates valuations for the utility companies such as the ESB and Eircom at a lower rate than previously for the next five years.

Following a meeting between Junior Minister at the Department of the Environment Paudie Coffey with a delegation of councillors, further funding of €573,000 will be handed to Galway Council Council for 2016, Cllr Jimmy McClearn (FG) told the meeting.

“What was a difficult situation is a very manageable situation now,” he remarked. “It’s important we’re not living in a negative world. It’s a positive world. It’s not all bad lads – cheer up. You don’t see any fruit in the tree.”

A pact between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil divided this amount up, including an allocation of €300,000 to roads maintenance, €50,000 for disabled person grants, €40,000 each for public lighting and economic development, €35,000 for community grants and €30,000 for street cleaning.

No matter which way you looked at it, the council’s coffers were still down on 2015 by €113,000, fumed Cllr Noel Thomas, who said he did not want to be associated with any remarks welcoming the additional grant.

The Fianna Fáil Councillor urged the council to spend money on cleaning out gullies which would save millions of taxpayers’ money on repairing roads, much of it unnecessarily if the gullies were cleared regularly.

Cllr James Charity (Ind) said with that kind of budget hole, Cllr McClearn was “looking a lot more link Grinch than Father Christmas”.

Sinn Féin’s Tom Healy said the local authority should seek to retrofit public lighting with LED lights, which would give an annual saving of €900,000 immediately.

Director of Services for Roads and Transportation Liam Gavin said a massive capital investment would be required to change the 13,000 lights across the county under the charge of the council. But he said the savings would be significant.

Cllr Shaune Cunniffe (Ind) lambasted the council for its lack of provision for bad debts for commercial rates. Cumulative uncollected debts were going to “paralyse” Galway County Council as some of these businesses were long gone and there was no hope of ever collecting them.

Mr Kelly said last year’s arrears were €10m with a bad debt provision in the books of €4m.

“The opinion of the auditor is it should be a bit higher but he’s broadly satisfied with the bad debt provision. Today, by increasing that provision, you have to decrease expenditure somewhere else,” he explained.

Cllr Tim Broderick (Ind) said councillors were like ostriches in the sand, refusing to deal with the issue of uncollected rates and if the council were a business it would cease to exist with that level of debt.

The extra €577,000 in funding, as proposed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, was passed, with seven voting against it, including the Sinn Féin councillors, Independents Shaun Cunniffe, Tom Healy, Jim Cuddy and James Charity.

The overall budget was adopted with 24 of the 39 councillors voting in favour of it.

CITY TRIBUNE

Designated drinking zones in city centre are ‘only solution’

Stephen Corrigan

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From this week’s Galway City Tribune – Properly staffed designated areas are the only solution to out-of-control outdoor boozing, according to the city councillor who drafted the city’s drinking bylaws.

Cllr Peter Keane told the Galway City Tribune it was likely that councillors would seek to ‘tweak’ the existing bylaws in the near future to find a long-term solution that would enable young people to ‘enjoy a drink outdoors in a safe and controlled environment’, not just now, but in the future too.

To avoid a repeat of scenes around Spanish Arch over recent weekends, the Fianna Fáil councillor said providing areas where the consumption of alcohol was allowed would enable Gardaí to properly enforce the drinking bylaws throughout the rest of the city.

He said he could ‘absolutely appreciate the concerns of residents’ in the Claddagh and elsewhere where anti-social behaviour including urinating in gardens ‘and worse’ had been a blight in recent weeks, but said with proper control, those worst excesses could be avoided.

In the first ten days of June, 83 on-the-spot fines were issued in the city for drinking in a public place.

And last Saturday night, Gardaí closed off the Quincentenary Bridge after hundreds of young people gathered on the carriageway and turned it into a “highly-dangerous road traffic risk situation”.

“Control is the key word for me. Gardaí don’t have the resources, nor do they have the appetite as far as I can see, to deal with the lack of control there has been during the recent good weather.
“If you were to designate, say for example the Spanish Arch or a green area in Salthill, where the bylaws didn’t apply, you could put a number of wardens in place there to control the situation. You could provide adequate bins and toilets, and enough bodies to staff it, and that would allow gardaí to police the bylaws elsewhere,” said Cllr Keane.
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the rest of the story and coverage of the re-opening of the hospitality sector and outdoor dining, see this week’s Galway City Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.

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CITY TRIBUNE

Dispute simmers between businesses and Council over outdoor spaces

Dara Bradley

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From this week’s Galway City Tribune – Friction between businesses and local government over the reclaiming of public space to facilitate outside hospitality marred the beginning of the city’s ‘outdoor summer’.

Galway City Council has come under fire over its handling of plans by bars and restaurants to use street furniture to facilitate outdoor dining and drinking.

Most city watering holes and eateries resumed trading on Bank Holiday Monday – serving outdoors only – for the first time since Christmas, and the authorities reported that it was successful for the most part, although it needed time to ‘bed in’.

The city vintners’ group said its members with adequate outdoor space were happy to be back and described the mood as ‘euphoric’ in places.

But several outlets expressed disappointment with the Council.

In Eyre Square, the Skeff Late Bar and Kitchen claimed it had to cancel 200 advance bookings – up to 800 people – for this week, after the Council refused permission for “extended outdoor seating”.

On Middle Street, Sangria Tapas Restaurant lashed the Council for refusing it permission to use certain types of awning and windbreakers to facilitate outdoor dining. “Surely the powers that be can take time to support the industry that supports the city?” its proprietor said in a complaint to City Hall.

‘Back the West’, businesses criticised the Council for rowing back on promises to provide additional outdoor space on Dominick Street Lower and Dominick Street Upper, in time for outdoor hospitality’s reopening on June 7.
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the rest of the story, see this week’s Galway City Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.

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CITY TRIBUNE

Council chief: ‘landlords see 4% rent increase cap as a target’

Enda Cunningham

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From this week’s Galway City Tribune – The Chief Executive of Galway City Council has said that the 4% annual cap on residential rent increases is now seen as a target by many landlords.

Brendan McGrath said that affordability continues to be a major problem for renters in the city and that an increasing number of people availing of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme have to pay ‘top ups’ to their landlords.

The HAP scheme replaces rent supplement for those with a long-term housing need – the individual finds a private rented accommodation within specific rent caps and the Council pays the landlord directly. The tenant then pays a rent to the Council based on their weekly household income.

The maximum monthly rents under the scheme range from €330 for an adult in shared accommodation to €900 for a single parent or couple with three kids.

Based on their household size, tenants can also apply for a 20% extra ‘discretionary’ payment on top of their HAP payment.

However, Mr McGrath said many on the HAP scheme in Galway have to pay top ups to their landlords.

“Rents as a percentage of income is increasing and affordability remains a major problem for the city’s renters. The majority of HAP tenants require additional discretionary payments to assist them in maintaining their tenancies, particularly single person households.

“An increasing number of HAP tenants now have to pay top ups to their landlords even with the 20% extra HAP discretionary payment applied for their particular household size,” Mr McGrath said in a report to councillors.
This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the rest of the story, see this week’s Galway City Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.

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