Since 2008, the number of Dublin City Council staff has been slashed by about 1,600, and councillors are worried about the future.
The number of employees at the council fell by more than 23 percent, from around 6,900 to 5,300 employees.
At a special meeting on Monday, Labour Councillor Mary Freehill said that she and her party’s councillors were concerned about how difficult it had become to get things done at the council.
“We’re also concerned about the future planning and the future resources of the city council,” she said.
The Labour group put forward a motion calling on the council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan, to set out a plan to show how he’ll make sure the council delivers high-quality services.
The motion also touched on concerns around a loss of organisational memory at the council after years of cuts, a perceived rise in outsourcing and delays in services, and a move away from apprenticeships.
Complaints and Concerns
Once the issue of service delivery was on the agenda, many councillors across parties had complaints to air.
Freehill pointed to the two-year waiting list for residents to meet with the traffic department. (Many councillors have complained in the past about the fact that it takes years to get simple traffic changes addressed.)
Labour’s Alison Gilliland said she felt that with housing-maintenance issues, it sometimes seems as if has to be a health-and-safety issue before a plea is dealt with.
Fine Gael’s Ray McAdam pointed to complaints from residents in the Docklands about construction. “There isn’t the sufficient number of planning-enforcement officers to go out and investigate,” he said.
Council chief Keegan said he knew that cuts have had an effect. “I accept that of course there has been an impact on service,” he said.
But, he said, the drop in services hasn’t been as acute as it could have been, compared to the sharp reduction in staff numbers.
That’s because the council is using more technology to deliver services, and also has been stripped of some responsibilities that it used to have.
As his report notes, the council no longer directly provides household-waste collection, third-level student grants, homeless hostels or driver licensing and insurance.
One of the issues raised by the Labour motion, and followed up by councillors of other parties, was the issue of outsourcing.
“One of the concerns is what do they mean by value-for-money” in contracts that are awarded, said Labour’s Gilliland.
Sometimes the cheapest price doesn’t mean the highest quality, and the use of outsourcing raises questions around workers’ conditions and accountability, she said. “The council doesn’t have enough time to be checking up on the standard of work.”
Independent Councillor Paul Hand pointed to the fall in staff numbers in the public-lighting division, which dropped from 70 in 2008 to 33 in 2017. “Are there plans to privatise the public-lighting department? Yes or no?” he asked.
Keegan said no. Dublin City Council is switching the technology that they use in the lighting system so that staff no longer have to scout routes to see what needs replacement, for example.
That means that they will need fewer people, so they have been scaling down staff in anticipation of a move to LED technology, he said.
Keegan said that he doesn’t have a privatisation agenda. “These is no general proposal to increase outsourcing, that is not on the agenda,” he said.
Finding the Money
Some of the debate touched on the local property tax, which the majority of councillors have voted to reduce by 15 percent when they have had the chance.
“It is worth pointing out that faced with a choice between not reducing the Local Property Tax and making additional resources available for service improvements the Council has consistently ignored my advice and decided to lower the Local Property Tax,” said Keegan, in his report.
Green Party Councillor Ciaran Cuffe, who voted last September not to lower the local property tax, agreed that cutting it had meant less money for services.
Others said that they had to stick with what they had promised to voters. And that they didn’t trust the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to give it back to the city to spend, anyway.
“People have seen an increase in their outgoings because of the property tax, but a decrease in the services that they get,” said Sinn Féin’s Anthony Connaghan.
Plans for Hiring
In his report to councillors, Keegan said that there will be more staff hired this year: in the cleaning service, the park service, and for the roads-maintenance service.
(Labour’s Gilliland questioned whether those new positions are in addition to filling the posts of those who have left or retired.)
He also responded in the meeting to demands for the council to look again at taking on more apprentices. “I’d be happy to have a look at that straight away,” he said.
But when it comes to hiring, he said that he has to be sure that the funding will be there for the positions not just this year, but for 30 or 40 years.
Many councillors said that this is something that they should be talking about more – how to ensure the council has the resources to deliver services.
Labour’s Freehill said the next step would be to set up a monitoring group so that they can work with Keegan to put together a plan, and work out what resources the council needs.
Said Sinn Féin’s Larry O’Toole: “I wonder are we pro-active enough, demanding from central government enough funding to run this city?”