On Monday morning at around 11am at the city council’s area office in Crumlin, the door was closed when Tanya Darcy tried to go in.
She had headed down to check on her housing points, she said. As she tells it, she’s been on the waiting list for social housing for two decades.
“I wanted to ask what is happening with Dolphins Barn and if I could put my name down for them,” she says.
Darcy was surprised the office was closed, but said she’ll just have to phone the council instead.
A council area office has a public counter, where people can go to speak to council staff directly, about things like litter, parks, grants, or housing issues.
It’s also used for meetings of local community groups, and some councillors hold their public clinics there, says Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne.
Recently, though, some have been unable to get in, because the building has been locked.
Last Wednesday, councillors[at the South Central Area Committee meeting, passed a motion that said they were dismayed at the closure of the Crumlin office.
The premise of that wasn’t accepted by executive manager Peter Finnegan. The office is still open, he says, it’s just that the public counter is closed four days a week, because of staff shortages.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. If it is not open, it is closed,” said Dunne. He has been raising the issue of the reduced operating hours in the Crumlin office for several months now.
Dunne’s motion called for “the immediate re-opening of the Crumlin office with a full complement of staff”. He said the office was being closed “by stealth” .
People Before Profit Councillor Hazel De Nortúin joined in. She said her colleague Tina MacVeigh, who was unable to attend the meeting, had wanted to put forward a motion on the issue as well.
De Nortúin said that she and MacVeigh normally hold their public clinics in the office on a Monday. It’s closure has meant that they haven’t been able to meet with constituents, she said.
“The services that are being provided by the staff there are vital, but it is also about the services of elected representatives,” said De Nortuin.
Some constituents have been travelling to Ballyfermot for services, said Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan. “We need more resources deployed to [the] south central [area],” he said.
Mary Thomas, chair of the Crumlin-Walkinstown Community Forum, says that for older people, the closure of the office is a major issue.
“It’s terrible on them,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t want to go Eblana House [on Marrowbone Lane] or to Ballyfermot, but some of them wouldn’t be able. You might as well tell them to go to the moon.”
Finnegan insists that the Crumlin office is not closed. “The Crumlin office remains a base from which operations and services of city council are provided,” he says.
It is open on a Wednesday when the housing social worker is there for clinic and appointments, he said.
The public counter service has stopped, though. “This service has been curtailed due to lack of available administrative staff to provide the service,” he says.
Crumlin had four administrative staff. Three have left the area – one retired, another went on maternity leave, and another asked for a transfer – and the fourth then had to be moved for health and safety reasons. You cannot have one staff member alone in the building, he says.
“There has recently been a public recruitment and competition for clerical officer posts and to date the appointments made have not been sufficient to meet demand across Dublin City Council in respect of vacancies,” he says.
Dunne says staff shortages have been a symptom of austerity. “But for the office to actually be closed is something that has never happened before and we are fighting it all the way,” he said.
Finnegan says that he plans to assess how much demand there is for council services in Crumlin. They will bring back the public counter service if enough people need it, he said.
People in the area can reach the council by phone or email, he said.
Technology might be another answer, he said. He wants to pilot a system whereby one team could provide a virtual public counter. Rather than having different teams in Crumlin, Ballyfermot and Marrowbone Lane.
“The public interface booth would be a contact point with audio and visual links to a single public counter serving the entire area,” he says.
Dunne doesn’t like the sound of that. “It‘s people that people want to see when they have an issue, not to talk into some type of Skype phone box,” says Dunne.