Major cuts to services provided by local authorities in County Meath will be unavoidable later this year if the government goes ahead with its threat to slash over €2 million from the funding it provides to the local authority here.
Meath County Council is bracing itself for a reduction of about €2.6 million from the €21 million the local authority receives from the Local Government Fund in 2012 as a result of the poor collection rate in the county among those who have paid the controversial Household Charge.
Minister for the Environment & Local Government Phil Hogan has told county managers he will be withholding funds because of the shortfall in revenue from the charge. Although the cuts will vary from county to county depending on the rate of payment, in Meath it will equate to a cut of around 12 per cent.
Concerned councillors are calling for an urgent meeting to discuss the impact the cuts will have on the services provided by Meath County Council, claiming it will leave the council in a very difficult situation, particularly as it has already had to cope with a nine per cent reduction in funding announced at the end of last year. One councillor predicted things like road maintenance, town centre upgrades and council housing maintenance would all be hit.
The reduction in the amount of money the local authority receives from central government is being based largely on the rate of payment of the Household Charge in the county. Latest figures suggest only about 52 per cent of householders in County Meath have paid the controversial tax, which is aimed at putting the funding of locally delivered services on a sound financial footing.
Counties such as Meath, with its low income from commercial rates, are among those suffering the most from the planned cuts, as these are the local authority areas which traditionally rely most on the Local Government Fund to make up the difference.
The government is now clearly placing the onus to collect the outstanding payments on individual county councils, and putting the pressure on senior officials to be more aggressive in going after Household Charge evaders, although it is stressing it is withholding the money rather than withdrawing it. The Dept says if collection rates improve, the tap could be turned on again.
The timing of the announcement from Environment & Local Government Minister Phil Hogan just ahead of the Dail's summer recess and at a time of the year when county councils will not meet again for a further six weeks is widely regarded as cynical in the extreme. It will be early September before elected councillors will be able to get to grips with what services will need to be reduced or even done away with in order to balance the council's books.
The pressure is also likely to come on those who have thus far steadfastly refused to pay the Household Charge as all residents in the country will now effectively be penalised, even those who have complied with the law and paid the charge. This is inherently unfair but it remains to be seen what tactics the county council will adopt to try and improve its collection rate - which is not among the worst in the country.
The Opposition have clearly latched onto this aspect of the controversy, accusing the minister of bullying cash-strapped local authorities which have seen their income streams come under pressure from all sides. He has been criticised particularly for penalising councils for the chaos he himself has created in the way the new tax was to be collected.
The manner in which this new tax has been collected has been ham-fisted from the start, particularly putting the onus on individual householders to go and do it rather than invoicing everyone who has a liability, as happens virtually everywhere else. An Post has a 90 per cent collection rate for the TV licence, and other organisations like the ESB, Bord Gais, Eircom and Sky all manage to regularly collect money relatively painlessly through electronic and other methods.
That may be an argument for another day, but for the present, councils such as Meath are going to have to figure out a way to considerably improve their Household Charge collection rate among a group of people who have either decided not to pay on principle or who simply cannot afford to pay. If it cannot, its already under-stress budget will come under even greater strain and community facilities and services will be under even greater threat.