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What is the council here to do?

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SIGNING ON THE DOTTED LINE
Peter Hynes, Mayo County Council Chief Executive, pictured here in Castlebar with former Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan. Mr Hynes says much of the changes in the council’s approach have been forced by Hogan’s local government reforms in 2014. Cllr Peter Flynn disagrees.
Pic: Frank Dolan

 

Analysis
Edwin McGreal

 

What exactly Mayo County Council should be spending their money on is a matter of continuous debate in the chamber.
It was, therefore, quite instructive to see Mayo County Council’s Chief Executive Peter Hynes and Cllr Peter Flynn (Fine Gael) go toe to toe at last week’s annual budget meeting.
There is no doubt the two men have differing views on what the council should be prioritising.
“In terms of the role of local government, myself and Cllr Flynn have a divergence of view, fairly fundamental,” said Mr Hynes.
It is probably the one thing both men can agree on.
Cllr Flynn, quite simply, feels the council ought to focus on the basics – roads, housing etc. He feels going beyond that is crippling funding for these basic services.
Mr Hynes feels the council’s remit ought to be more all encompassing and he considers departments like tourism, enterprise and communications as key parts of the council in 2019. Their exchanges were compelling.
All of this came up during the council’s annual budget meeting where the executive and the councillors were tasked of balancing a council budget for 2020 of just shy of €150 million.
The executive of the council, headed by Mr Hynes, proposed a three percent increase in commercial rates in order to balance the books.
It was, argued Cllr Flynn, too high a rise and he said the council’s spend in certain areas was not justified when it meant increasing costs for struggling businesses.

‘Anti-business’
“We’re talking about a rates increase of three percent. That means we are talking about a rates increase in the last five years of 22 percent for most businesses in this county. We like to talk about Mayo being open for business but in my view that is completely anti-business and unsustainable.
“Manager you referenced the new role of enterprise and tourism under the Local Government Reform Act. Again I will make the comment these are ancillary functions. These are not the primary functions of the council and, again, if I look at budgets for other councils in the country, the likes of tourism and enterprise perform a support function and are not seen as primary functions and, again, Mayo County Council seem to have taken a very different view of the world.
“I do want to refer to a specific department where we have a Communications Unit where we spend €500,000 a year on. Again I’ve looked at budgets from Donegal down to Kerry and I cannot find a communications budget yet we spend half a million in this council on communications. We have to ask the question right now is this the real way we want to spend our money?
“Do we want to be spending it on footpaths, roads, hedgecutting, housing, maintenance programmes or do we want to spend it on stuff that is nice to have?
“We have municipal districts hugely underfunded, critical pieces of infrastructure and programmes that should be happening aren’t happening because they don’t have the money. As much as I regret to say it, we are not spending money on the primary functions,” said Cllr Flynn.

‘Democrats to our fingertips’
Peter Hynes responded at length, taking issue with much of what Cllr Flynn said and defending the approach of the council under his leadership.
“We’ve tried to set out a vision for the county. Four words – sustainable, inclusive, prosperous, proud. I don’t see any disagreement about any of those four. In terms of the role of local government, myself and Cllr Flynn have a divergence of view, fairly fundamental. It comes down to the challenge which was placed in front of us by the Government in 2014 … We were challenged to take on enterprise and investment and be the co-ordinating body not just for micro enterprise but for any possible inward investment and we’ve taken that on.
“Personally I think the Municipal District structure is working reasonably well and given time to bed in will show substantial advantages. We are democrats to our fingertips and if Government policy changes we will endeavor to interpret and apply as effectively as we possibly can, in consultation with the elected members of this council.
“Our Communications unit includes Road Safety. We’ve retained a road safety officer when others didn’t. Personally I think it was the right thing to do. The budget includes … all of our advertising and other funds that would otherwise be expended through other sections. It was pulled together in an effort to co-ordinate and modernise our communications structure.
“We have only started to scratch the surface on tourism. There is still a huge imbalance of numbers going south of the Galway to Dublin line. Kerry and Clare are way ahead of us in terms of numbers and we need to rebalance that.
“I’m very happy that we have a positive, moving county to the extent that I know a couple of other authorities are looking at implementing county days and I would take that kind of copying as the greatest compliment that you could look for. I’m sure we’re not getting everything right and I’m sure there’s things we can improve and that we will try to. Overall I think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last ten years,” said Mr Hynes.

‘Priorities backwards’
In response, Cllr Flynn said he had ‘no issue’ with the tourism department but argued the council’s ‘priorities are skewed’.
“The annual report, the first thing we see is all about enterprise, it’s all about communications, it is all about the IT services. The core function of any local authority is roads, housing, sanitary services, it is the things that matter to people in their day to day lives and I just think we have our priorities backwards. I can certainly tell you the people on the ground feel very differently to you about services,” he told Mr Hynes.
The final word went to the Chief Executive.
“I don’t view tourism, communications and enterprise as simply support services. They are core to what a modern local authority needs to be. I’m not saying they are any more important than roads, housing or water, I'm saying they are important. My view is we have a good balance with what we are trying to do in this county,” he said.
A rates increase of four percent was subsequently passed by the Fianna Fáil/Independent alliance which control the council which would appear to suggest more councillors side with Mr Hynes than Cllr Flynn on this debate. But it is likely it is a debate which won’t go away either.