Sean O'Riordan: Cork council 'can’t go cap in hand all the time' to Government

Sean O’Riordan looks at the challenges Cork County Council faces against the backdrop of Covid-19 as it prepares an unprecedented budget
Sean O'Riordan: Cork council 'can’t go cap in hand all the time' to Government

The County Library at Cork County Hall: One of the services that is facing possible cuts due to the huge reduction in the council coffers.

A major rethink is in the offing into how Cork County Council will carry out many of its services in the days and months ahead, due to drastically reduced income caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Civic amenity sites, the major recycling centres around the country, are a significant loss-maker for the local authority.

”It costs us a significant amount of money to run our civic amenity sites," council chief executive Tim Lucey said. "There's a huge gap between the cost of running them and the charges we impose (on the public).  

"It's a big-time loss-maker for us. We would have to double charges just to break even."

Mr Lucey said the only way to reduce the operating costs on these sites, and therefore aid balancing the council's budget, is either to reduce their operating hours and/or to increase charges for the public depositing items in them.

Councillors have already railed against reduced opening times at some sites and will have to face the wrath of the public if this is introduced, allied to possible increases in charges.  

However, bearing in mind the huge hole in the council's income stream, councillors may have little choice but to bow to the pressure.

Meanwhile, Mr Lucey said the county council spends approximately €2.8m annually on repairs to council houses.  He readily admitted this expenditure was likely to come under attack and, at present, it is only carrying out emergency repairs, rather than scheduled upgrading.

In recent years the council substantially cranked up its footpath repair programme, which is now also on the hitlist.  In the coming months, the local authority is likely to focus on upgrading and widening footpaths in towns to help with Covid-19 social distancing.

Funding for libraries, business associations, cultural events, and festivals is also likely to get the chop.

Mr Lucey said €400,000 per annum went on grants for festivals and a further €300,000 per annum on arts grants — both are now likely to be in jeopardy.

Tim Lucey, chief executive, Cork County Council.
Tim Lucey, chief executive, Cork County Council.

The impact of cuts could also be felt in the frequency of cleaning operations at beaches, playgrounds, and amenity areas.

Lorraine Lynch, the council's head of finance, said: “We will have to prioritise essentials.”  

Mr Lucey, said talks are ongoing with the Government about helping local authorities through this financial crisis.  However, he hinted that while some aid may be forthcoming, it is unlikely to plug all of the deficit.

“Local government has fairly significant (financial) challenges," he said.

"We have had great support from the Government to date.  But local government will have to step up to the plate and therefore there has to be some pain.

We can't expect the Government to do everything. We can't go cap in hand all the time.

Ms Lynch said the national budget “will be critical in terms of what we have to work with".  She has already been told by her officials that a number of ratepayers will never reopen their businesses, mainly pubs, small cafes, and retailers.  Others that do reopen may be genuinely unable to pay any rates owed.

Mr Lucey said the council generates a lot of investment from various government departments for a wide range of infrastructural projects.  Applying for various grants for these projects puts the local authority in a dilemma.

He explained the caveat is the cash-strapped council has to provide a percentage of the cost of these projects out of its own resources, and it just doesn't have the money right now to do this.

Civic amenity sites, the major recycling centres around the country, are a significant loss-maker for the local authority.
Civic amenity sites, the major recycling centres around the country, are a significant loss-maker for the local authority.

Councillors will take their first steps in trying to balance the budget for 2021 when they meet next Monday to discuss if they will raise the Local Property Tax.  Each 5% rise will give the council €1.6m per annum in increased income.

They can raise it to a maximum of a 15% increase in any one year, which would bring in €4.8m in additional revenue.

Mr Lucey pointed out that meetings in relation to balancing the budget overall will get under way shortly with the council's corporate policy group and will be followed up with briefings for all councillors thereafter.

They will also have to factor in the additional cost to the council of fighting the virus, which Mr Lucey said was at €3m this year due to the expense of buying staff PPE gear andadditional sanitising of council offices and public spaces.

Mr Lucey is already budgeting for a best-case scenario of €1.5m for that next year.

If, in the meantime, councillors and their officials manage to balance the books, there's a distinct possibility they could be torn up again.

“If we go up a level in the Covid (restrictions) scale, it will cost us even more,” Mr Lucey warned.

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