RATES on empty commercial premises, bin waivers and property tax on local authority tenants were the main sticking points as Limerick City and County Council sought to agree its 2015 budget this Monday.
But there was a widespread welcome for the fact that the commercial rate itself was not increased even though the new revaluation scheme will mean some owners will face higher bills while others will see theirs fall.
And there was a welcome too for the capital budget of over €300m which is to be spent over three years on housing, roads and economic development. But this came with a health warning from director of services for roads, Paul Crowe, who pointed out that the funds for the list of far-reaching projects had not yet been allocated.
Opposition to the proposal to impose a 50% rates charge on vacant premises had been well-flagged in advance. Opening the debate, Fianna Fail leader Michael Collins said his party could not support a budget that would impose rates on small commercial property owners who are unable to rent their premises.
“I’m asking that some other mechanism be found to recoup the €3.3m you are earmarking.” Fine Gael leader, John Sheahan also said they could not support a 50% charge.
It was to be many hours later, however, before the solution, a Business Support Programme, was unveiled by chief executive officer, Conn Murray. Empty premises would incur a 25% charge, he explained but only properties with a rateable valuation over €10,000 would have to pay the full amount. Properties valued below €2,500 would get a full rebate and therefore would pay nothing while properties rated between €2,500 and €10,000 would be entitled to a 50% rebate.
In all, this measure should generate income of €3.4m, Mr Murray explained, leaving an additional €100,000 over to protect the bin waiver scheme.
Councillors across all parties were very keen to retain the bin waiver scheme, making Limerick the only local authority now operating such a scheme. The scheme cost €519,000 to run in 2014 and the money allocated for 2015 was just €440,000.
“There are sections of our community struggling and that waiver makes a big difference,” Cllr Leddin (Lab).
But slightly different schemes have operated in the city and in the county, Cllr John Sheahan (FG) argued and he wanted to see equity. Cllr Cian Prendiville (AAA) also argued for harmonisation, demanding that the unemployed, those with disabilities anad those on invalidity allowances in the county should also be eligible.
In the end, the additional €100,000 expected from the rates on vacent premises brought the bin waiver fund up to €540,000 and did the trick for most councillors although the task of deciding how this money will be applied still remains to be fully sorted.
Charging council tenants an €87 property tax was vigorously opposed by Sinn Fein, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, Labour and Independent John Gilligan. “Local Property Tax is for people who own property, not for council tenants”, Sinn Fein leader Maurice Quinlivan. “We are opposed to property tax, doubly so on properties people don’t own,” Cllr Cian Prendiville said.
But Cllr Liam Galvin (FG) laid the blame for the proposal on the 3% reduction in property tax, which Fianna Fail had proposed and the council had agreed in December. For most people, it meant only a saving of €3, Cllr John Sheahan argued while Cllr Jerome Scanlan pointed out that those with the biggest houses had benefitted the most. But that measure had led to a shortfall of €485,000, they argued.
Despite demands from opposition councillors to find the money elsewhere, the property charge for tenants remained.
Finally, after almost nine hours, including a one-hour recess to discuss amendements, councillors agreed the €155m budget for 2015, as amended. The amount of money to be spent is down some €17m on last year but the vast bulk of this is due to the transfer of water services to Irish Water. There is however a real cut of at least €2m.
In the end, however, in what was their most challenging task yet, the grand coalition of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael held up and their councillors voted the budget through, with 26 votes although Cllr Jerome Scanlan was absent when the vote was called. Sinn Fein, Labour, the AAA and John Gilligan all opposed it.