A lot of the money that Dublin City Council gets each year from the central government is already earmarked for projects or departments.

But there’s been a growing pot that councillors get to decide how to spend within their stomping grounds. This year, it was €5 million, split equally between the five areas of the city.

As the amount has increased, some have raised questions about whether there should be better guidelines for how it is spent.

What’s in the Pot this Year?

Different areas choose to spend their money in different ways.

In the North West Area, councillors have allocated their money to making streets and roads better.

That includes €5,000 for colourful traffic boxes in the area, and other amounts on footpaths, fences, and CCTV upgrades.

They have allocated €40,000 for ornate lighting on Drumcondra Bridge, and €110,000 for dressing rooms for the sports facilities in Poppintree Park.

In the North Central Area, councillors plan to allocate €20,000 for an after-school pilot project for homeless children, and €50,000 for a playground in Kilbarrack.

There are also contributions for bike stands and seating, as well as to organisations such as Near FM, and the Glin Boxing Club.

In the South East Area, money will likely go to improvement works for housing complexes, and public-realm projects such as expanding the traffic-signal art boxes to Sandymount.

Councillors there have also opted to give funds to festivals, with Canalaphonic getting €20,000 and a Ringsend Halloween event getting €40,000.

The Central Area councillors have yet to finalise how they’ll spend theirs. But the draft sets out a mix of public-street projects – with plans for more trees and more bins for dog waste – and local organisations such as the Irish Handball Centre and the East Wall Senior Citizens Bus.

The South Central Area has yet to settle their spending plan.

(These are all plans, of course, and sometimes some of the projects don’t pan out.)

How Do They Choose?

As Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey tells it, the birth of the “discretionary fund” came from the local property tax, and the idea that money raised should be spent locally.

“That doesn’t happen totally, but this is an effort to try and redirect some money to the local communities,” he said.

And councillors get more control of the budget. “It’s an effort to more democratise the budget process.”

At the moment, different area offices – the branches of Dublin City Council that manage the projects in different parts of the city – divvy up the largesse in different ways.

Councillors and area managers make suggestions, sit down together to hash out a final list, and they then vote it through. Often, says Lacey, this takes only a handful of meetings to finalise.

Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello says it’s important money to use to make sure that some overlooked and underfunded projects are able to go ahead.

“It’s the councillors who are often better able to target at a local level and might be more in touch on a local level than an official in, say, the Housing Department,” he said.

Fianna Fail Councillor Paul McAuliffe, who has his seat in the North West of the city, agrees.

“For example, there’s road repairs or pavement repairs but the ones that [the Roads Department] aren’t prioritising, the area office might come along and say ‘We’ll do that one’ rather than have it wait in a queue.”

“Now, they try not to do that because you’re kind of letting the other department off the hook,” says McAuliffe.

“A Barrell Full of Pork”

While that all sounds straightforward, some councillors say they are concerned with how the money is being allocated in their areas.

Labour’s Rebecca Moynihan says she is concerned that it could become a system similar to the community-grants scheme, which gives to organisations, and that stricter guidelines should be looked at.

Ciarán Cuffe of the Green Party says he could also see how it might look from the outside.

At the moment, the fund for each area is allocated upon the suggestion of the managers in each local area office, and it’s up to councillors to then tease things out.

“But one could be forgiven for thinking that the discretionary fund was simply a barrel full of pork that the councillors for the relevant area throw towards various causes that were kicking it,” says Cuffe.

The council already has a community-grants scheme in place for organisations, and, as some see it, the discretionary fund should only be used for public-realm improvements.

There is also a broader question: should there be a discretionary fund decided by local councillors, or should the council management take an evidence-based approach to allocating funding?

The latter could be as simple as a written report that justifies spending, and one which lays out every option, says Cuffe.

While his area – the Central Area – has yet to finalise where it’ll spend its money in the coming year, he has some questions about the draft list.

At the moment, there is a proposal to spend €39,000 on CCTV cameras at different flat complexes, but he isn’t convinced that’s a good move.”There is often a call from communities who are concerned about crime for CCTV,” says Cuffe. “I’m not convinced CCTV is the magic bullet that will tackle crime.”

And, says Cuffe, he feels councillors and council officials are being too hasty in suggesting funding allocation for CCTV which he feels is “a knee-jerk reaction”. Instead, all options should be considered first, says Cuffe.

Some areas divide the money up to make sure that a certain amount is spent on different issues such as public-realm, or community development. Others do it by different neighbourhoods.

As Labour’s Moynihan sees it, discretionary funding should be directed, for the most part, towards public-realm improvements, and not necessarily towards local initiatives or community groups.

“If you’re allocating money towards outside groupings, every outside grouping should have a right, then, to make an application,” she says. “We don’t know if there are groups out there that could do with the money.”

A stricter framework would help with that, she said. “We need to work out exactly what the criteria is,” she says. “Next year we could have 30 organisations come looking for that money. We’ll end up like the community-grants scheme.”

A Bit of Sunlight

There’s also the question of how transparent the allocations process is.

Dublin City Council’s 2017 budget says that discretionary funding is “to be allocated in an open and transparent process locally”.

But the council doesn’t load all of the details to its website in a single place for Dubliners to see.

Dublin City Council Press Office said it couldn’t provide us with details of the area allocations when we first requested them, due to “the granular level of detail” of the request.

It did not respond to queries about how it ensures openness and transparency throughout the process.

Instead, various city councillors forwarded documents – area meeting agendas, excel spreadsheets and word documents – with details of discretionary funding listed within.

But it’s all out in the open anyway isn’t it? says Labour’s Lacey. “It all stems from previous motions, previous requests and issues that people have raised,” he says.

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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