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Local government reforms pose questions for Mayo

Mayo County Council, Elections

Three Mayo town councils culled but other changes unclear

Edwin McGreal

How exactly the local government reforms released last week will impact on Mayo remains shrouded in uncertainly.
The reforms have been described as ‘lacking specifics’ by Fianna Fail’s Cllr Al McDonnell and a lot of his fellow Mayo councillors agree.
The reforms suggest that greater power will be devolved to councillors and council officials will be more responsible to the elected members but how and if this will happen is unclear.
But one thing is certain - come 2014 the town councils in the three largest urban areas in the county, Ballina, Castlebar and Westport, will cease to exist. Mayo will, like elsewhere in the country operate a local government based around municipal districts. Again though, how and where these councils are formed remains unclear.
While Mayo will lose 27 town councillors, indications are that the county’s representation of 31 councillors will diminish by less than a handful. Numbers ranging from 27 to 30 have been mentioned by sitting councillors who themselves have been trying to find out what the future holds for them.
The guide to the changes describes municipal districts thus: ‘the new municipal districts will cover each entire county and will be built as far as possible around the main towns and their natural hinterlands, unlike the current isolated town authorities’.
There has been talk of four municipal authorities, based around the three towns losing their town councils and Claremorris. Belmullet, in this scenario, will go into Ballina.
However there is also speculation that there is no natural home in either of these four new areas for Belmullet and Achill and that the current Belmullet Electoral Area will remain, as a three or four seater.
The boundary commission report is expected to be out in early 2013. It also remains to be seen where Ballinrobe and large parts of south Mayo will sit. They could end up in a municipality centred on Claremorris or, in Castlebar. The same applies to Charlestown and Swinford. Both could go to Ballina or Claremorris.
Each municipal councillor will be a county councillor as well but the reforms suggest the county council will have a reduced role and that district functions will expand, in theory, beyond the current levels of power which county councillors have.
Functions listed for members having a local policy or regulatory role include areas such as ‘planning, roads, traffic, housing, environmental services, recreation, amenity, community matters, civic functions, citizen and community engagement and representational and oversight functions’.
How much influence councillors will have in each of those spheres is very much uncertain. One Fine Gael councillor in Mayo told The Mayo News that Minister for Environment and Local Government Phil Hogan told him that the reforms were ‘designed to clip the wings of county managers by making them more accountable to members’.
However Castlebar based Sinn Fein Cllr Therese Ruane said that the proposals were ‘a load of waffle’.
“Where’s the devolution to local authorities? Minister Hogan was unable to answer this despite being asked four times by Bryan Dobson on RTE. He said more power would be given to councillors - what powers? The only specifics mentioned was the taking away of powers with the removal of the Section 140 provision for a council to overrule a County Manager on planning,” she said.
Cllr Frank Durcan, who initiated a Section 140 against the controversial McHale Park media tower in Castlebar in 2010, questions the removal of that power.
“I defy anyone to find a Section 140 case in Mayo which is any sort of eyesore. Any monuments to bad planning in this county were the result of officials or An Bord Pleanala, not councillors. Because councils in Dublin had some corrupt councillors, it means the rest of the country must suffer when it comes to planning,” he said.
How the culling of the three town councils will impact on staff numbers is also unclear. Cllr Eugene McCormack (Fine Gael) has canvassed the opinion of council staff and feels there are no huge fears.
“I think the main saving is expected to come from staff costs but as I see it the Croke Park Agreement protects these jobs.
“In terms of how these changes will effect day to day jobs for council staff, I’ve spoken to a number of council staff and they said they can’t see their jobs changing that much. People will still have responsibility for areas, be they engineers, managers, roadsweepers,” Cllr McCormack told The Mayo News.
Cllr McCormack also pondered if individual municipal councils will be able to strike their own commercial rate for businesses or if this will be a common, county wide function. The report has no answer on this. However, Minister Hogan has indicated that councils may be able to set their own property tax in order to self-finance themselves.
“Property tax will become more and more the source of income for local authority services to be funded. If they are raising the money locally for service provision, they will have a say in how they spend it. Each local authority can have a different level of property tax in due course. The timing of that is a matter for Government,” said the Minister. How this may impact in terms of cuts in funding from central government to peripheral counties like Mayo is, as yet, unclear.
Local authorities are expected to have a greater role in local economic development, meaning that the 34 city and county development boards will be phased out over time.

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