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CITY TRIBUNE

Reliance on rates will lead to ‘black hole’ in local authority finances

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An over reliance on commercial rates to fund local authorities could see Galway City and County Councils face a black hole in their budgets as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, an expert in local government economics has warned.

With large numbers of businesses unable to pay rates due to closure, and many other income streams drying up as a result of measures introduced to slow the spread of coronavirus, central government will have to come up with additional grants for local authorities to avoid huge cuts to the level of service.

That was the stark warning from Dr Gerard Turley of NUIG School of Business and Economics, who said despite councils such as Galway County and City passing some of their biggest budgets ever in 2020, a shortfall as a result of this crisis could see a return to the lean days after the economic crash in 2008.

In their budgets for 2020, Galway City and County Councils surpassed all previous funding levels and were showing signs of finally escaping those dark days in the aftermath of the IMF Bailout – staffing levels, which had been slashed, were also returning to normal.

However, of a €100 million budget, Galway City Council was reliant on commercial rates for 38% of its income – the largest single source of finance it had available to it.

In the county, the €128 million budget was 23% funded by rates, second only to grants and subsidies from central government which made up 38% of income.

Dr Turley said that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was already looking at the likely “drastic” measures that would be required due to the fall in income for councils.

“Councils are not like central government; around the world, central government has most of the call on VAT, personal income tax and corporation tax. In terms of what local governments have here, it’s local taxes, local charges and grants from central government,” explained Dr Turley, adding that in Ireland, councils did not have the ability to borrow as such, and must, for good reason, balance their books every year.

Both councils in Galway have deferred the payment of rates to the end of June for businesses adversely affected by the Covid-19 crisis, but there are calls from many quarters to have rates suspended – businesses will already be in financial distress and, it has been argued, in no position to repay rates missed during this current period.

While day-to-day spending by local authorities during this period of shutdown would fall, the drop in income from not only rates, but also parking charges, and the payment they receive for use of amenities and facilities.

There was also a risk that if the economy does not rebound quickly and unemployment abounds, the income from rent on Council-owned houses will also decline as people have their rents recessed to reflect their reduced income.

Increasing commercial rates was a way in which councils had bridged budgetary gaps in the past, but this was not the most prudent way of handling things while businesses were struggling – and so, while unpopular, restructuring Local Property Tax might hold the key in the aftermath of this crisis as it was a more progressive tax, said Dr Turley.

The monetary powers of Councils to raise finances were limited, but included setting commercial rates and increasing or decreasing the LPT each year, he said – something that would likely be looked at by many local authorities as they grapple with the aftermath of this crisis when compiling their budgets towards the end of this year.

“The whole point of local government is to make decisions locally, and to be accountable for those decisions,” said Dr Turley, and if local powers shift to central government due to a lack of funding, there would be a detrimental effect on democracy.

The continued provision of adequate services, and the protection of necessary staffing roles in local authorities would require additional grants from central government, he explained, and its ability to do this would rely on the economy recovering quickly.

“We have to hope it will be a short shock and [the economy] will recover quickly. Local government, like central government, will be hit quite badly otherwise.

“The last crisis went on for a long number of years, followed by austerity up to 2014/15. What’s different this time around is the whole world is subject to all of this; in the last crisis, in countries across Europe, governments were increasing spending,” said Dr Turley, while Ireland and others were subject to harsh austerity measures.

The worldwide nature of the current economic difficulties was likely to draw a more coordinated response – particularly in EU countries, which would make for a less damaging long-term impact.

The adequate funding of local authorities was paramount to continued provision of services such as parks and amenities; social housing; local and regional roads; arts projects; playgrounds; tourism promotion; and many other services that are crucially important, but are often taken for granted, said Dr Turley.

■ Dr Gerard Turley is a lecturer at the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics and Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway. Together with colleagues, he compiles an annual breakdown of which can be viewed HERE.
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CITY TRIBUNE

Spanish Arch project to highlight dangers of rising sea levels and flooding

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From the Galway City Tribune – The city will now receive twice-daily illuminated reminders of the potential dangers of sea surges in a joint science and art project which had its first showing this week at the Spanish Arch.

Each day, at the times of high tides in Galway Bay – morning and evening – the Spanish Arch will be it up by the Línnte na Farraige environmental group.

The Spanish Arch has been chosen as the city location for the ‘high tide illuminations’ – the Galway site is the first of a number of coastal locations selected for the light shows.

Two Finnish artists – Timo Aho and Pekka Nittyvirta – are responsible for the bars of light that will appear on the Spanish Arch, indicating the projected rise in sea levels from future storm surges.

According to the artists, the striking visual light installations are designed to ‘open eyes and minds to potential future storm surge levels around Ireland’s coastlines’.

One of the scientists involved in the project, Dr Zoe Roseby, of Trinity College, Dublin, said that the goal of the project was to ‘provoke a dialogue around rising sea levels to demonstrate that the future is still in our own hands’.

Dr Roseby said that the Spanish Arch had been picked because it was a location of local significance to highlight the link between greenhouse gas emissions and rising sea levels.

“Línnte na Farraige aims to encourage individuals to consider how collective societal action can mitigate climate change and sea level rise, to ultimately inspire a more sustainable and resilient future,” she said.

According to Línnte na Farraige – funded by the Dept of Environment’s Creative Climate Action initiative – since sea levels were first measured in Galway in 1842, they have risen by 25 to 30 centimetres.

“In recent years, Galway has become the go-to for reporting on coastal flooding associated with storms. Storm surges occur when strong winds drive water in the direction of the coast. The impacts of these events are then exacerbated by high Spring Tides,” Línnte na Farraige stated.

Galway’s most dramatic relatively recent sea surge event occurred on January 2, 2018, when Storm Eleanor caused sea waters to rise above the dock walls leading to severe flooding along Dock Road, Merchants Road, Flood Street, Quay Street, Spanish Parade and Claddagh areas.

According to Línnte na Farraige, on that occasion, the water levels had risen by 90cms above the base of the Spanish Arch, Now their line of light – first shown last Thursday – will appear 1.9 metres above that base line.

“This indicates the predicted rise in sea levels of a similar storm surge in 2150 when sea levels have risen by one metre — a moderate climate change scenario,” Línnte na Farraige point out.

The group also state that ‘solar panels and renewably powered batteries will be used as part of the installation to power the lights, which only turn on twice a day during rising tides.

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CITY TRIBUNE

Fears that interim Emergency Department at UHG will become long term

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From the Galway City Tribune – The new ‘temporary’ Emergency Department (ED) at University Hospital Galway  is due to open over the coming weeks, the HSE has confirmed.

The HSE – in a reply to a question from Cllr John Connolly (FF) – said that the ‘interim ED’, would have a capacity of 43 patient bays, as compared to 34 in the pre-Covid ED.

However, Cllr Connolly told the Galway City Tribune that while he welcomed the news on the interim ED, he feared ‘this new temporary facility could test the meaning of the word temporary’.

“I want to see a real commitment and urgency about the provision of the new permanent ED at the hospital which is to be done in tandem with the proposed maternity and paediatric units.

“As things stand, the whole process hasn’t even come near the planning stage and is currently being looked at under a public spending evaluation process. This needs to get moved on,”” said Cllr Connolly.

At this week’s Regional Health Forum, the HSE in a written reply, told Cllr Connolly that the new ‘interim, temporary ED’ – a project started in June, 2021 – would offer an improved service as compared to the previous facility.

The temporary ED will provide 43 single closed cubicles and extra resuscitation bays providing greater dignity and privacy for patients,” the HSE stated. The organisation also confirmed that the opening date for the new ED unit was the end of September or early October [2022].

In a letter last March to the Minister for Public Expenditure, Michael McGrath, Cllr Connolly recalled that in December, 2015, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny had highlighted the problems in ED at UHG.

“On December 1, 2015, the Taoiseach told Dáil Éireann that the Emergency Department at UHG was one of the most inadequate facilities in the country and needed to be replaced and that the staff there worked under extraordinary conditions,” Cllr Connolly outlined in the letter.

He also said that while he acknowledged the need to ensure value for money in public expenditure, this shouldn’t be done at the expense of providing adequate and appropriate levels of emergency health care for people.

“Can I specifically and purposely ask, that as Minister for Public Expenditure, you would agree to tempering the demands of the Public Spending Code in a bid to hasten the progression of the project.

“I would also ask that in conjunction with the Minister for Health you would endorse this project [the permanent ED/Maternity units] progressing to planning, procurement and construction forthwith,” Cllr Connolly stated in his letter of March 29 last.

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CITY TRIBUNE

Stars for businesses who offer proper services to disabled people

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Maggie Woods is always ready for a challenge. The latest is serving as project director of the Galway Gold Star initiative, which is designed to improve accessibility and services for disabled people at businesses in Galway City.

It will be launched this Tuesday, October 4, in the Connacht Hotel from 11am-2pm and all are invited to attend

Based on the Gold Star Disability Project developed by the HSE, this scheme will allow restaurants, shops and other businesses to be rewarded with Bronze, Silver or Gold Star awards for the services they provide for people with disabilities.

Minister of State for Disabilities Anne Rabbitte and Mayor Clodagh Higgins will lead the launch, which is being run through the Galway City Partnership (GCP), and will be headed up by Maggie, a long-time disability advocate.

She started in the new position this year.

“I am delighted to be part of the Galway City Partnership (GCP) team and get the opportunity to work on a project so close to my heart,” she said.

“Like a lot of people, I love Galway but know from first-hand experience that it’s difficult to navigate the city when you have a disability, whether you use a wheelchair or have a less-visible condition like chronic fatigue or an intellectual disability. This is a way to address the lack of services and accessibility – as well as educating people about disability issues.”

She said the goal of the Gold Star initiative was to make Galway a city that was accessible to everyone, doing that through positive reinforcement rather than focusing on the negatives.

Maggie will be working with Galway restaurants, shops and other businesses along with GCP and the Access for All Galway network, finding common ground on ways to improve access and services for disabled people.

Removing barriers for disabled people is a cause she is passionate about and has been advocating for all her life. As one of the youngest survivors in Ireland of the Thalidomide drug disaster, she has faced a lifetime of adversity and succeeded through hard work and a positive outlook. She worked most of her working life for The Irish Wheelchair Association in several capacities, in Tuam Resource Centre. She was also chairperson of the Irish Thalidomide Association and negotiated with government for people born with disabilities caused by the biggest drug catastrophe in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, when she was in her 30s, she organised a fundraiser for the Galway Hospice Foundation, flying a small Cessna plane from Galway to Shannon and back, and raised €8,000.

The mother of two sons and two grandsons, she celebrated a big birthday this year with family and friends, but her fight for disabled services is not slowing down.

“I came to Galway about 38 years ago with a weekend bag and never left. I know the people of Galway will work with me in making the project a success,” she says.

The Galway Gold Star initiative, which is officially titled Access Together Galway, will be administered by GCP, using money provided by the Disability Participation and Awareness Fund approved in December 2021 by Minister Anne Rabbitte.

This initiative will follow the design of similar successful Gold Star programmes in Cashel and Tipperary towns. These support the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which was ratified by Ireland in 2018.

The guest speaker at Tuesday’s launch will be Anne Bradshaw of HSE Tipperary, where the original Gold Star initiative was rolled out. Declan Brassil, CEO of GCP, will speak on how the Gold Star will benefit the entire Galway community, not just people with disabilities. Access for All chairperson Marian Maloney will give the closing address. Members of the Chamber of Commerce will also attend. Entertainment will be provided, along with light refreshments.

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