Fine Gael Cllrs Frank McDermott, Emily Wallace, John Dolan, Tom Farrell, Andrew Duncan and Deputy Peter Burke

War of words as councillors split over Westmeath Budget

There was stark disagreement in the Westmeath County Council chamber on Monday as the 2020 annual budget of €84.2 million was adopted for the county, by a majority of twelve to seven.

The Fine Gael grouping, who opposed the Budget along with Labour and Independent Alliance councillors, have slammed it as “anti-business” and “regressive in the extreme”, criticising a hike in commercial rates and a cut to housing adaptation grants.

However, Fianna Fáil, who approved the adoption of the Budget along with Green and Independent members, criticised this reaction branding it “misleading and inaccurate”.

The newly adopted Budget introduced a 6 per cent increase in commercial rates, which will increase the council's overall rates intake by €600,000. However, a 5 per cent grant scheme will mean that 82 per cent of businesses will see a net rise in commercial rates of less than 1 per cent.

Fine Gael councillors and Deputy Peter Burke said the Budget “highlights the lack of foresight and experience being displayed by the newly created Fianna Fáil-Green alliance and puts forward an extremely anti-business agenda”.

Cllr Andrew Duncan said the Budget was “anti-business, anti-jobs and sells our high street traders down the river” and argued that the grant scheme was a “farce”.

If every business claimed this so-called rebate scheme, the total would amount to approximately €438,000. However, Fianna Fáil and the Greens don’t seem to care that there is only €282,000 in the budget for this purpose,” he said.

Cllr John Dolan said the budget was “built on a house of cards”, while group leader Cllr Tom Farrell was particularly critical of a decrease in housing adaptation grants: “The current Fianna Fáil/Green coalition which has control of the Council has shown that they are anti-business and have moved immediately as their first policy decision to cut current housing adaptation grants by 26%. The budget for this programme is already very modest, as any councillor who has helped an older person try and get their house adapted to suit their changing needs will know. This will undoubtedly direct more people in this county to nursing homes,” he argued.

However, leader of the Fianna Fáil grouping Cllr Ken Glynn said “mistruths” were being peddled, and that the new commercial rates system “seeks to put the smallest possible burden on businesses and will protect smaller indigenous businesses”.

We have designed an automatic grant which when applied will result in a net rise in rates of less than 1% for 82% of businesses – not 6% as has been widely reported by those seeking to stir up negative sentiment,” he said.

The introduction of the grant is streamlined and will greatly reduce the impact of rates on the vast majority of businesses. Businesses do not even have to apply for it - it is automatically refunded. Even if a business is in arrears they can still receive the grant if they are adhering to a repayment plan.”

Of the €600,00 net rates increase, €300,000 will go towards hosting Fleadh Cheoil 2020 in Mullingar, and €150,000 has been allocated to upgrade public lighting across the county. Some funding will also go towards supporting five key regeneration projects in Athlone, Mullingar and Kinnegad.

Cllr Frankie Keena said the Budget “maintains the focus on our service delivery responsibilities while continuing to enhance the quality of life for the people of Westmeath through economic and community development”.

The Fine Gael/ Labour/ Independent Alliance councillors made a very misleading and inaccurate statement at the end whereby they stated that this budget was anti-small businesses, anti-jobs and not supporting our elderly population through maintaining the level on housing grants.

This budget is not anti-small businesses as the net increase in rates is less than 1% for 2,565 ratepayers (82% of total ratepayers in the county). We have introduced a first ever progressive rates system for the county. For example a ratepayer who currently pays €1,000 a year in rates will see an increase of €7 per year on the bill.

Again, the statement made that this budget penalises our elderly population is completely untrue and misleading... It was made very clear by the Director of Finance to all councillors that the average spend over the last number of years on housing grants was approximately €1.5m, therefore provision for the council’s share of this amount has been made in the 2020 budget. It was also stated that should demand for housing grants exceed this budget allocation and subject to additional Government funding being made available that this council will commit to providing the extra own resources required.”