Councils owed at least €156m in water levies

Irish Water is set to take on the liability for at least €156m in unpaid commercial water charges owed to local authorities.

The Government has confirmed that the Water Services Act 2013 allows for the transfer of “eligible liabilities” from local authorities to Irish Water through a ministerial order.

According to the Environment Minister Phil Hogan “a working group including representatives of my department, the Water Services Transition Office, and Irish Water is currently considering the issues involved in the transfer of liabilities from local authorities to Irish Water.

“It is expected that following completion of the 2013 annual financial statements and finalisation of closing balances as at Dec 31 2013, guidance will issue to local authorities in relation to the data required to complete the necessary ministerial orders.”

Up to the end of 2011, €156,019,418 was owed to local authorities for unpaid non-domestic water charges. That is the latest year for which information is available as the accounts for 2012 and 2013 are not audited.

Unsurprisingly, the larger counties account for the biggest chunk of the liabilities — €39m was owed to local authorities in Dublin and €15.6m in Cork.

Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen called on Irish Water to say whether the debts will be recoverable and what mechanism it intended to use to retrieve as much money as possible.

Meanwhile, figures released by the Department of the Environment show some local authorities were unable to collect up to 50% or more of the commercial rates owed to them in 2010 and 2011.

While the average collection rate for the two years was more than 75% across the town, city, and county councils, it dropped as low as 38% and 45% for Buncrana in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Castleblaney was not much better at 46% and 48%. Of the city councils, the worst percentage was in Limerick where 63% and 59% were collected in the two years. However, crossing into Limerick county, the rate was one of the best at 90% and 87%.

The scale of the losses experienced through the non-collection of rates can be seen when one considers how much is “written off” by local authorities every year due to, for example, business ceasing to trade.

Dublin City Council, for example, collected 82% of its commercial rates in 2010 and 80% in 2011.

However, figures previously released by the department show that €9,035,651 €12,882,359 respectively were written off in those two years. Overall, local authorities have been forced to write off at least €500m in commercial rates over the course of the recession.

Mr Cowen called for an inquiry into why there was such a disparity in trying to retrieve monies owed to councils.

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