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The council will need to look at increasing commercial rates paid by businesses as well as chasing up debts it is owed to cover costs, given rising inflation, said Kathy Quinn, head of finance for Dublin City Council.
Energy inflation may cost the council an extra €16 million and non-energy related inflation an extra €10 million, Quinn said at Monday’s monthly meeting of the full council.
Meanwhile, planned staff pay increases are expected to cost €38 million, she said. “The figures are massive.”
It’s not clear if the government will help the council meet the costs of the staff pay increase, Quinn says. “We’ve had no correspondence of whether all, or some or none of that will be funded. So that’s quite worrying.”
“Usually it’s not funded fully,” she says. “If it was funded at 80 percent, which has been a trend, that would leave a gap of €7 million.”
So those alone would leave a hole of between €33 million and €64 million for the council to fill, equivalent to between 3 and 6 percent of its €1.13 billion budget for 2022.
Councillors at the meeting kicked around some places to look for money, including trying to chase up €116.8 million the council says the HSE owes it for running ambulance services.
Towards the end of the discussion, Quinn gently raised the question of the local property tax, the rate for which is set by councillors each year who have always opted to keep it as low as possible – and which is up again for a vote early next month.
How to Fill the Gap
If councillors were to increase the local property tax rate by 15 percent from the base rate, as they can do, said Quinn, it would mean an income increase of €14.2 million.
Each year for the past several, however, despite council officials’ pleas not to forgo millions in revenue by doing so, they have voted to vary the local property tax rate downwards from the base rate by the maximum of 15 percent.
The chief executive is also considering the impact that increasing commercial rates – charges on commercial properties like shops and offices, which normally make up about a third of the council’s budget – would have, she said.
If the council were to increase their rates by 1 percent, it would mean additional income to the council of €3.6 million.
But taking those two actions would only cover €17.8 of the expected extra costs.
“They’re massive, massive amounts and really what we need is some indication on government funding, because it’d be very hard for us to square that circle of those two large figures for inflation and then what will be the hit on the pay increase,” said Quinn.
Quinn said the council doesn’t plan to take out any loans, aside from mortgage-related loans.
Séamas McGrattan, a Sinn Féin councillor, said the council’s Budget Consultative Group is due to meet this week to begin discussing next year’s budget, and they will be taking into account inflation costs.
Councillors usually vote each November on the budget for the coming year.
Chasing the HSE
One government agency that council officials and councillors said they wanted to chase down for money is the HSE.
Over nine years, the HSE has accrued debts to Dublin City Council amounting to €116.8 million, said the chief executive in response to a councillor’s motion.
Dublin Fire Brigade runs an emergency ambulance service for when the National Ambulance Service is not available, as well as sending out fire tenders when no ambulance is available – which happened 3,066 times in 2021 – said the response. The council also runs ambulances for Covid-19 services, said Quinn.
In 2014, when the council began running the ambulance service, it cost an estimated €9.41 million. The HSE awards the council €9.19 million a year to run the service, said Owen Keegan, the council’s chief executive at the meeting.
But costs have risen. In 2022, the cost of the emergency ambulance service to Dublin City Council is expected to be just under €26 million, and the council estimates that it will lose €16.55 million running the service.
Even as costs of running it have increased, the HSE has not agreed to send more money, Quinn said. “That gap has grown.”
Quinn says the council wants to ensure that it can get full funding for running the service, and wants to be paid back for the millions it has already spent in previous years.
“There’s the amount owing historically, which if they could be paid, would be very useful, but there’s an amount owed in order to address the budget going forward,” she said.
At an average of €12.98 million a year for nine years, the HSE owes the council €116.8 million, Keegan’s response to the councillor said.
“Anybody else would have withdrawn the service long before now,” Keegan said at Monday’s meeting.
“But there’s a huge commitment among the staff, and I think it’s important that we will support them. And we’ve done that and the HSE have exploited that to the hilt,” he said.
Keegan said he has got commitment from the Minister of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Fianna Fáil’s Darragh O’Brien, that he would resolve the issue this year.
“We’re waiting for the minister to come back,” Keegan said. “I think we’re best waiting until he delivers on that because I believe he will deliver on that.”
Christy Burke, an independent councillor, asked if the council would take legal action against the HSE if there is no plan to repay the arrears by the end of the year.
Said Keegan: “I don’t believe there’s actually any basis. The HSE’s attitude is, if you’re not happy with €9.18 million, well then we’ll provide the service ourselves.”
“I think it’s difficult to avoid the case that they [the HSE] don’t really want us [the council] providing this service,” he said. “I think that’s always been their objective, to get full control of that service.”
The HSE has agreed to make a financial contribution to Dublin City Council for running 11 24/7 emergency ambulances, said a HSE spokesperson on Tuesday
“There is no Service Level Agreement in place between the HSE and DCC to vary the amount of the contribution made or accede to, agree with or accept any alternative costing model,” they said.
“Officials in both departments are working on a resolution to this issue and they are working to have a solution as soon as possible,” said a Department of Health spokesperson on Tuesday.
Councillors were also concerned that the amount owed to the council in unpaid rents has increased, they said.
As of 31 December last year, rent arrears amounted to €37.9 million, while credits were at €4.35 million. That meant 35 percent of accounts were in credit, 1 percent were clear and 64 percent were in arrears – with 47 percent of all accounts in arrears owing less than €500, said a council report.
Past council reports have noted that a big cause of rent arrears is when household incomes rise, but the council only learning of this later, and the increased rent owed is retrospectively applied.
Paddy McCartan, a Fine Gael councillor, said steps need to be taken towards reducing the amount of rent owed to the council.
“This is regularly teased out, but the figures are still going in the wrong direction,” he said. “We assumed over the last couple of years that there would be progress and that there would be a reduction.”
Quinn said a full report on the council’s rent arrears would be brought to the finance strategic policy committee in November.