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Should Some Councillors Step Away From the Local Property Tax Debate?

Later this month, Dublin city councillors will vote to set the level of the Local Property Tax for Dubliners, including, in some cases, themselves. They can vary it by 15 percent.

Of the 63 councillors in Dublin, 18 have declared that they had family homes, although it’s unclear how many of those are in the Dublin City Council area, as the addresses are concealed.

Also, six declared that they had additional residential properties that are in the Dublin City Council area. (Others have properties outside of the city.)

That’s according to the most recent declarations of ethics that councillors have to file.

Notably, independent Councillor Nial Ring, who represents the North Inner City, has three rental properties listed. Plus, he has one marked as “PPR”, perhaps his principal private residence, but Ring couldn’t be reached to confirm that.

Fine Gael Councillor Kate O’Connell also has a few properties on her sheet: five investment properties and two leased business premises. Of the investment properties, two are in the city council area, one in Smithfield and one in Rathgar.

Should councillors who would benefit from a lower Local Property Tax rate be allowed to debate and vote on it?

What Are the Rules for Councillors’ Conflicts of Interest?

Local councillors all have to sign a code of conduct when they get into office.

The code of conduct reminds local councillors that they are prohibited from seeking to influence a decision of a local authority in which “the councillor has actual knowledge that s/he or a connected person has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest.”

So, given that councillors with family homes and investment properties would benefit from any decrease in the local property tax, should they step out of the vote later this month?

If you look at the code of conduct a bit closer, there are get-out clauses.

The first is that if an interest is “so remote or insignificant” that it can’t be regarded as likely to influence a person in their discussion or vote. Secondly, if somebody is a ratepayer – in other words, a business that pays commercial rates – or a local authority tenant, like other ratepayers or local authority tenants. Or, “any other circumstances which may be prescribed by regulations made by the Minister.”

As the code of conduct and law reads, the onus seems to be on councillors to decide whether or not an interest is “remote or insignificant”.

They’re supposed to apply a test. It’s not just what they might think, but what it might look like to a member of the public. Would a member of the public think that the interest concerned might influence the person in the performance of their functions?

“If so, disclosure should follow and a councillor should consider whether in the circumstances s/he should withdraw from consideration of the matter,” it says.

“An Interesting Question”

It’s a question that some councillors say they need to grapple with.

“I think it would be useful, certainly, if they were to declare at the meeting whether or not they are landlords, and I think it would be in the hands of the meeting as to whether they should absent themselves or not,” said Green Party Councillor Ciaran Cuffe, who has a mixed-use building on Fade Street.

“The other thing to note is that family homes pay the property tax, so where do you draw the line? (…) It would be very clear if only a small cohort of the council were paying this tax,” he said. “Do you just leave out the landlords? Or do you ask anyone who is paying the local property tax to absent themselves?”

“I think it’s a really interesting issue and it could produce a really heated debate,” he said.

In the past, the council’s view on what’s a conflict of interest hasn’t always squared with the views of other bodies.

In 2010, Michael Smith from Village magazine and Councillor Cieran Perry took a case against then Labour Councillor Oisin Quinn after he submitted motions for the last development plan that, they argued, he could possibly have benefited from because he was part-owner of a property on Lower Mount Street.

The complaint was upheld by the Standards in Public Office Commission, although the contraventions were “minor in nature”, it found.

A Part-Time Council

Fianna Fail Councillor Paul McAuliffe said that, of course, people should declare an interest if they stand to benefit financially. But, there’s sometimes an absurd interpretation of what is a connected person, he says.

In this case, “there’s a small percentage of people that have rental properties,” he said. Should they step aside? “No, because the family home and the rental property are both covered by the property tax so there would be no difference. The conflict of interest should apply to both,” he said.

“This is the whole issue of having a part-time council. The benefit of it is that you don’t create a political class divorced from real life. But the flip-side of it is, is that people are in real life,” said McAuliffe.

That’s a similar stance to Councillor Kate O’Connell of Fine Gael. “Where do you draw the line?” she asked.

If you want politics to be representative of society, then people are going to have interests, she said.

Plus, she pointed out, as a member of the Fine Gael group on the council – which has just eight members and isn’t part of a wider alliance – hers isn’t a decisive vote.

Others, like Labour’s Dermot Lacey, say they don’t see it as an issue that would affect how people vote. “I genuinely don’t believe that’s a significant factor. I don’t think that’s a factor at all,” he said.

Evidence From Last Year’s Vote

Last year, most councillors – whether or not they owned residential properties – put their names to motions to lower the Local Property Tax by 15 percent.

The Sinn Fein group voted for a 15-percent reduction. As did the Fine Gael group. So did Fianna Fail. So did People Before Profit. A group of independent councillors also voted to cut it by 15 percent; their position was voiced by Councillor Nial Ring.

Labour put forward a motion to reduce it by just 7.5 percent, which would have meant an estimated €6 million more for the council than the council would have received after a 15 percent cut. Labour wanted to use this money for homeless services, graffiti removal, parks, and a fund for area committees to give to local projects.

On behalf of the Green Party, Ciaran Cuffe asked for a 5-percent reduction, calling a full reduction “a step too far”.

Pat Dunne, of United Left, told the meeting that he would vote against all the motions on the grounds that he’s completely opposed to any Local Property Tax.

On an individual level, for councillors who declared either family homes or rental properties in their February and March 2015 filings: two were absent, one voted against the 15 percent reduction and was in favour of a 5 percent reduction, 4 voted against the 15 percent reduction and were in favour of a 7.5 percent reduction, and 15 voted to reduce the property tax by 15 percent.

One person voted against the motion to reduce it by 15 percent, and wasn’t in favour of anything. Yes, that was Dunne.

What’s the Thinking so Far this Year?

On 4 September, the Department of Environment posted details of this year’s allocations for the Local Property Tax, and said that Dublin City Council can vary it by up to 15 percent again this year.

It’s early days and parties haven’t come out with the for-sure positions they’ll take and we couldn’t reach Sinn Fein for their position. But for those we did reach, the thinking sounds a lot like last year.

For the Green Party, Ciaran Cuffe said he’s unsure what to do yet but is conscious that “the housing needs in the city are very high and there are lots of projects that are not happening because of a lack of money”.

People Before Profit’s Tina McVeigh says they don’t know the details of this year’s budget so they couldn’t say for sure, but are still against the Local Property Tax as it stands. “It’s not a wealth tax, it’s a tax on ordinary people,” she says. “We would be keeping that position where we want as much as possible to reduce the burden on people.”

And Fianna Fail’s Paul McAuliffe says he doesn’t know what position his party will take yet.

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

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