‘What are we going to do about the rates? Businesses are closing’

A judge has criticised the high commercial rates policy of Cork City Council at a time when hundreds of businesses face prosecution in the run-up to Christmas.

Judge Olann Kelleher had 170 rates cases on his list at Cork District Court yesterday and said he would have over 200 more in the fortnight before Christmas. The prosecutions are being taken against business for failure to pay rates in 2012.

Judge Kelleher asked if anyone was looking at the connection between high rates and the closure of shops and offices.

“As I walk down South Mall, half the place is empty, and Oliver Plunkett St is the same. At what stage do you look at it and say: ‘What are we going to do about the rates?’” he asked.

Solicitor James O’Mahony, for Cork City Council, said this would be a matter for the city manager.

The judge asked if there was an awareness in the city council about the issue.

“We are hitting rates at such a height that we are closing businesses. Are they conscious of what is happening in the courts?”

The judge said when summonses came before the court, he had to give a decree for the relevant amount. In the first six cases in yesterday’s rates list, he made decrees of €2,445, €5,576, €1,836, €2,986, €10,367, and €7,849, plus costs in each case, against various Cork businesses for the non-payment of rates.

“I am now concerned that the number of cases is going up and up. But people can pay less and less.

“I accept the money is owed. At what stage does the council decide it is not in society’s interests to keep suing and suing?

“Three months ago, there was a woman in court for a case like this. It was her first time in court. She had three people working for her. I believe her — I am not naïve about believing someone — and her difficulty about paying rates. Why can we not get someone to talk to her [before the case comes to court]?”

Kevin O’Reilly, officer from Cork City Council, said a rates officer was available to talk to business people in such circumstances.

Judge Kelleher asked if any position was being taken on the amount of rates being sought, and said he was well aware of the way in which rates were struck.

Mr O’Reilly said a national re-evaluation of rates was taking place. “It is hoped that this will be in Cork in 2014,” he said.

The judge said he was not blaming the witness or the council solicitor, but asked them to relay his views to city management. He said his view was they should look at ways that supported keeping people working.

Last night, Cork Business Association chief executive Donal Healy appealed to firms struggling with rates to negotiate with the council or landlord. He said there had not been a rates review for the city in decades.

“I hope the city council will make the time to sit down with these businesses,” he said. “We do not want to see closures of any more businesses because, once the jobs are lost, they are very difficult to replace.”

Cork city manager Tim Lucey said he would not comment on matters before the court. He and councillors are due to discuss rates as part of the council budget next month.

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