Council Briefs: Budget Watching, the North-Side "Super Depot", and a Potential Pilot Wash Facility

Budget Watching

Commercial rates paid to the council more than halved in March this year compared to last year, according to a report at this month’s full council meeting on Monday.

From 29 February to 27 March this year, Dublin City Council was paid €26.2 million in commercial rates by businesses in the city, down from €57.5 million for the same period in 2019, the report said.

Rental income from social housing also fell year on year for the period, from €8.5 million in March last year to €7.2 million this year, the report also said.

The decrease was “quite staggering”, said independent Councillor Noeleen Reilly, at the meeting, which took place at Dublin Castle. “Are we looking at an extraordinary budget throughout the year to reflect that decrease in income?”

Sinn Féin Councilor Daithí Doolan said the council needed adequate money from central government to compensate for the fall in rates. He also said additional money would be required to cover added spending on Dublin Fire Brigade, and homeless services.

And, money, a zero-interest loan say, to cover any lag in rates being paid once businesses do reopen. “Because they won’t all be ready to pay the rates that owe this city,” he says.

Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan said that small businesses shouldn’t have to pay any rates for the foreseeable future, given the crisis they are operating in.

On 7 May, in the Dáil, Eoghan Murphy, Fine Gael minister for housing, planning and local government, said no council should be down revenue due to Covid-19. But some councillors said they’re wary and keeping an eye on the fine-print of any measures.

Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan told councillors that there has been “extensive engagement” between councils and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

“There have been two welcome announcements,” he said. These include the three-month commercial waiver for all firms that are shut, which the department is covering the cost of.

And a restart fund of grants of up to €10,000 for small businesses to offset against this year’s rates. “That’ll be a huge relief for us,” said Keegan.

Council officials are talking to the department about other revenues and expenditure, he says. Keegan also said he believes they’ll get more money to cover gaps. “I can’t report now that we have got it,” said Keegan.

North City Operations Depot

Dublin city councillors at the monthly meeting on Monday backed a plan for the council to try to borrow €34 million to cover an increase in the projected cost of building a new council “super depot” in Ballymun.

Council management in 2018, when pitching the plan to councillors in a report, had estimated the cost of this proposed North City Operations Depot at “€25–35m, plus fit out”.

The plan at that time was to sell off some of the 33 depots scattered around the city to fund the construction of two big, new, modern ones – one on the south side and one on the north side.

The idea was that they’d provide better bases for the 1,400 or so council workers to run the city from, overseeing road maintenance, waste management, public lighting and other services.

But some councillors objected to selling off some of the sites zoned for housing to private developers. Instead, they wanted the council to use more sites for social and affordable housing.

So a new plan has evolved, which looks like it will mean more social housing on the sites. At Monday’s meeting, Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker thanked council managers for taking on board councillors’ concerns.

“There were a greater mixture of uses when this came before us previously and I see that the majority of them now are being allocated for social housing development,” Stocker said.

But concerns remain that the council might rely on approved housing bodies – charities that build and manage housing – for the social homes, rather than building them itself.

“We need to make sure that they are council properties,” said Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, cautioning against “becoming overdependent on voluntary housing bodies” – an issue that has come up before in discussions about what to do with the depot sites.

And while this new plan might mean more social and affordable housing, it’ll mean less money in land sales for the council, said Owen Keegan, the chief executive.

“If we had just disposed of the sites we would have got a certain income but we’re not doing that,” he said. “We’re getting much less value from the sites.”

Meanwhile, when council put out a tender for companies to build the North City Operations Depot, they had difficulty getting bidders, Keegan said. Only two companies bid.

And prices are millions higher than projected. It’s now looking like €51.5 million plus VAT, fit-out costs, contingency and various other costs – adding up to a total of maybe €74 million, Keegan said in a report presented to councillors Monday.

Still, Keegan said in the report that the case for the project remains strong. Building it would improve the delivery of city services, improve facilities for staff, allow for better health and safety and environmental standards, and create some cost savings by eliminating duplications.

And it would free up other smaller depot sites for “more appropriate development including about 745 social housing units”, his report said.

So Keegan asked councillors on Monday for permission to ask the Department of Housing for the go-ahead to borrow €34 million. Paying back the loan might cost €1.5 million a year for 30 years, he said in his report to councillors.

Councillors agreed to that request with the provision that Keegan would come back to them afterwards and explain in detail why the costs had risen so much, and give them a chance to vote the project as a whole up or down.

“We have serious concerns about the estimated cost,” said Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam.

Keegan said he was not pleased either: “The cost escalation was very disappointing.” He said the council would look at what direction construction costs are headed in the coming years and consider putting the project back out to bid.

The original 2018 proposal for the north side super depot said a council-owned site on St Margaret’s Road in Ballymun would be ideal for it. It would include a four-storey “staff welfare and office building”, a “central stores warehouse building”, and workshops for welding, painting, electrical work, carpentry, signage and vehicle maintenance.

There would also be hundreds of parking spaces for private and council motor vehicles, and 220 more for bicycles. And there would be bays to wash the council vehicles in, as well as “waste-collection and compaction facilities”.

A Place to Wash

Dublin City Council should pilot a wash facility at the Countess Markievicz swimming pool for those who are homeless and sleeping rough during the Covid-19 crisis, said a motion from independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, at this month’s South East Area Committee meeting.

That motion was agreed by councillors, said Flynn after the meeting, which was held on Zoom. “That has some level of commitments.”

Dublin Region Homeless Executive is now looking at the feasibility of a pilot project at the swimming pool, said a written response to Flynn’s motion from council official Mary Taylor, too. (The pool is on Luke Street just north of Trinity College in the city centre.)

Organisations such as the Alice Leahy Trust have pushed for years for more public showers and toilets. And not just for those who are homeless but for anybody who might need them.

The current Covid-19 crisis, though, has heightened that need. When day centres for Dublin’s homeless closed, it left those who sleep rough without a place to shower, said Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a day centre that has stayed open in the south inner-city, recently.

After the meeting, Dermot Lacey, a Labour councillor said he thinks bringing in public showers and facilities should be longer-term, not just for the current crisis.

Tacking them onto council swimming pools might be a good idea, he said. The council should also consider how it might be able to provide lockers too for people to keep belongings safe, he said.

“I’m not saying lockers instead of homes,” he said. It’s just about making life more bearable as the council works towards the bigger solutions to homelessness, said Lacey.

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Authors:

Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

Sam Tranum: Sam Tranum is co-founder of Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at [email protected]

Stephanie Costello: Stephanie Costello is the managing editor and general reporter at Dublin Inquirer. To get in contact with her, you can email her on [email protected]

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