Councillors ignore pleas and reduce local property tax from 2019 rate

Councillors voted to set the Local Property Tax (LPT) for 2021 at 7.5 percent – a reduction of 2.5 per cent on the base 2020 rate of 10 per cent.

he decision was made at a special meeting of Kerry County Council on Monday, where it was passed by 20 votes to 13 after a lengthy debate covering the pros and cons of the LPT.

Kerry County Council CEO Moira Murrell initially pleaded with councillors for the 2019 rate to be retained (10 percent), citing a shortfall of €10.6 million in KCC’s income streams due to the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on the local economy. A hit of between €5m and €6m is the projected deficit in commercial rates as businesses struggle to create income since the COVID outbreak in March. Commercial rates account for roughly 28 per cent of KCC’s annual funding.

Additional revenue from car-parking fees, planning, rents, loans and waste disposal are also forecasted to reduce council coffers by over €3million. Moreover, KCC management said it expects further spending increases for key services to exceed €3million ahead of its Draft 2021 Budget in November.

All in all, the message from Ms Murrell was a bleak one. She outlined that the LPT increase would be ring-fenced for housing maintenance, community support funding, road maintenance, and local grants for towns and villages. Ms Murrell explained it was the ‘most unusual and unprecedented time’ in all her years working in KCC, while she admitted a 10 per cent rate was an exceptional ask in an exceptional year.

“I’m asking for a retention of last year’s rate, “Ms Murrell said. “Obviously we still have all these problems on the table, but at least we can look at the vulnerable areas. LPT will help cushion in some way the impact on this county. The amount is small but critical, we need to visualise what we can do.”

Ms Murrell warned that some projects already in the pipeline may have to be prioritised and delayed, and that a full cost analysis across all of KCC’s departments is underway. A total of 111 public submissions on LPT was received by KCC: 68 did not want an increase; 36 requested a decrease, and seven did not comment specifically on the rate.

FF Cllr Michael O’Shea opened the debate by proposing a 7.5 per cent increase on the base rate. This was seconded by FG Cllr Jim Finucane and received the backing of most councillors. Other amendments came from Sinn Féin councillors – who asked that no increase on the base rate be made; and by Ind Cllr Sam Locke, who proposed a five per cent increase. Ms Murrell also confirmed that no indication of what financial support is available to KCC from the Central Government for 2021 had been received as yet: “We’ll have to help ourselves,” she said.

However some councillors were upset at what they felt was an implied ‘threat’ from the Central Government that if they didn’t agree to an increase they would be penalised when it came to the allocation of funding.

“We feel this council needs to send a very strong message to the Government that we in no way accept any form of threats to Councillors in lieu of our decision here today,” said SF Cllr Deirdre Ferris. “They have no right to threaten us when they’re responsible, since 2014, for the 20 per cent cut in capital spending to County Councils,” she added.

Cllr Michael Gleeson also weighed in along these lines when accusing Central Government of eroding the independence of local government. “They have snared us and made us their helpless pawns,” he said.

The economic hardship facing people across the county in the wake of COVID was echoed by all Councillors, with claims that people were ‘hungry’ and visiting food banks more regularly being a frequent complaint.

Cllr Jackie Healy-Rae stated that people don’t see the benefits of paying their LPT in good times, let alone this year.

Labour Cllr Terry O’Brien highlighted the plight of Tralee in recent months following the closure of Beru and Debenhams: “It’s all negative. We’re all in this together but common sense also needs to prevail in what we do,” he said.

FF Cllr Niall Kelleher explained the difficulty of going back to constituents and telling them grants can’t be drawn down for local projects because money isn’t there: “It is hard but we have to look at the bigger picture for those who elected us,” he said.

FG Cllr Aoife Thornton said the LPT rate would be necessary to maintain Kerry’s beaches, parks and amenities: “Where we’re at has changed drastically, and what we need to do has changed drastically. I represent all the people of Kerry, and while we don’t get as much tourism in north Kerry as other parts of the county, I still want to see it happening,” she said.

FF Cllr Norma Moriarty explained that it was time to shelve ‘the populist view’ in favour of what’s good for the county: “I don’t see my position as a Councillor to be constantly trying to do the popular thing,” she said. “If someone wants to give out to me for raising the property tax, I’m happy to be the lightning rod for that anger instead of going back to them in three months’ time saying ‘sorry, I can’t allocate funding for the bend in that road because we don’t have the funding,'” Cllr Moriarty added.

This view was supported by Ind Cllr Brendan Cronin who said ‘it’s tough’ but we must take ‘the backlash’.

“It’s very handy sometimes to be populist, but it’s awful difficult to be responsible enough and sensible enough to take the hit and make tough decisions,” said Cllr Cronin.

Prior to the vote, the CEO again appealed to councillors.

“This [increase] will go somewhere to address the devastating cuts that will have to be made in our budget in November,” she said.

In response to allegations of threats by Central Government, she said: “It’s going to be difficult for us to make a strong case for central funding if we haven’t made the effort locally to address our own problems, at least in some part.”

Cllr Michael O’Shea’s proposal for a 7.5 per cent increase (from its base +/-15 percent) was passed by 20 to 13.

Councillors were asked to vote on a proposed 7.5 per cent increase on Baseline Property Tax Rate. (Last year’s increase was 10 per cent)

Councillors for:

Cllr Brendan Cronin (Ind).

Cllr Jim Finucane (FG).

Cllr Brendán Fitzgerald (FF).

Cllr Séamus Cosái Fitzgerald (FG).

Cllr John Francis Flynn (FF).

Cllr Michael Foley (FG).

Cllr Michael Gleeson (KIA).

Cllr Donal Grady (Ind).

Cllr Niall Kelleher (FF).

Cllr Mike Kennelly (FG).

Cllr Aoife Thornton (FG).

Cllr Jimmy Moloney (FF).

Cllr Marie Moloney (Lab).

Cllr Terry O’Brien (Lab).

Cllr Norma Moriarty (FF).

Cllr Bobby O’Connell (FG).

Cllr Michael O’Shea (FF).

Cllr Mikey Sheehy (FF).

Cllr Johnnie Wall (FF).

Cllr Patrick Connor-Scarteen (Cathaoirleach, FG).

Councillors against:

Cllr Niall O’Callaghan (Ind).

Cllr Sam Locke (Ind).

Cllr Dan McCarthy (Ind).

Cllr Jackie Healy-Rae (Ind).

Cllr Maura Healy-Rae (Ind).

Cllr Johnny Healy-Rae (Ind).

Cllr Cathal Foley (SF).

Cllr Tom Barry (SF).

Cllr Robert Beasley (SF).

Cllr Michael Cahill (FF).

Cllr Charlie Farrelly (Ind).

Cllr Deirdre Ferris (SF).

Cllr Fionnán Fitzgearld (FF). – News