There has been an interesting reaction to the news of the decision by Kildare County Councillors to cut the Local Property Tax by 7.5%
And unfortunately with a fast approaching deadline, the Leinster Leader wasn’t in a position last week to give our readers much of a flavour of the discussion which took place in the council chamber last Monday, September 22.
There are two elements to decision to cut the tax rate, and that discussion. Firstly, there are the practical implications of the cut and secondly there is the politics.
The councillors have the power to make a reduction of up to 15% - or an increase of up to 15% to the Local Property Tax.
At either end of the spectrum, Sinn Fein and Labour proposed a full 15% cut while a number of independent councillors (though not all) proposed that there be no cut.
In the middle, displaying some fine realpolitik, were Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, who proposed a cut of 7.5%. Those two parties have a significant majority between them, so on the basis of the numbers, that’s what stuck.
It’s not as black and white as you might imagine. Voters might look most favourably at those who proposed the maximum cut of 15% but other councillors have argued that cutting the tax by that much would have left the councillors with little or no discretionary budget to be spent on the kinds of things people want to see the council spend its money on.
For some councillors, having the power to cut the rate was a double edged sword. What’s not so widely known or publicised is that the councillors also had the power to direct where a certain amount of the revenue from the Property Tax is spent - which is something any public representative worth their salt craves above all else.
It puts them in a position to deliver on some of what they actually promised, such as footpaths, speed ramps and support for tidy towns, community games etc etc.
So while proposing a cut of 15% might go down well with voters in the short term, if it leaves you with little or no ability to deliver on other bread and butter issues in the long term, then you could simply be pointing a loaded shotgun at your foot, and pulling the trigger.
The morning after the decisive vote, a group of independent councillors who had argued against any cut, emailed a comprehensive statement to the media.
They pointed out that the 7.5% cut which was agreed will result in a €36.18 cut to the annual rate of tax on the county’s most valuable properties - or 69 cents a week. In the case of the county’s least valuable properties, it’s a saving of €6.75 per annum, or 13 cents a week.
On the other hand, they argue, the effect of the 7.5% cut on the council’s finances could be much worse.
The councillors - Pádraig McEvoy, Paddy Kennedy, Teresa Murray and Anthony Larkin - argued that service provision will continue to trail following the reduction.
They agreed that there are many “unfair aspects to the LPT” but the reduction in the council’s budget from the 7.5% cut could be as much as €1.65m.
The LPT doesn’t give Kildare County Council more funds, it gives it the same funds, but from a different source, because central government has essentially swapped it for the money the council used to collect from car tax.
As it stands now, the LPT is the “main fund for Kildare County Council to solve issues such as footpath repairs, completion of housing estates and their taking in charge, street light repairs, playgrounds, traffic calming, improved road safety measures, community grants, etc” the councillors said in their statement.
They also note that local services have seen a €2.5 million reduction since 2012 and that many requests for work to be done over the past few years have been turned down “due to a lack of funding”.
Cllr Teresa Murray said there was a “need for funding to allow the council respond to requests for repairs and infrastructure.
“While savings on the LPT will help some families, the council will be hindered in its capacity to help the most vulnerable.”
And Cllr Anthony Larkin called for “a longer term view since Kildare has been poorly funded for the last 5 years. The small saving per property will result in missing big opportunities for our citizens”.
In a statement she released called ‘Why I voted to reduce Local Property Tax by 7.5%’ Fine Gael’s Cllr. Fiona McLoughlin Healy said that while a reduction of 15% would have meant a saving of less than a euro a week for the average person, it would have reduced the Council budget by over €3.6m a year or by about €16m over the five year life-span of the Council.
“By agreeing to reduce the property tax by 7.5% we wanted to acknowledge the difficulty people across our community are experiencing, however small the saving,” she said.
But on the other hand, she had “a list of projects on which to spend that budget across Kildare, Newbridge, Rathangan and its environs.
“Let the real negotiations begin,” she concluded - alluding to the occasionally bad tempered meeting last Monday, where Sinn Fein was the main agitator.
Unusually at the level of a local council, Sinn Fein councillors like to play party politics, castigating the others for the failures of their colleagues at national level.
So when the Labour councillors proposed a 15% cut, Sinn Fein’s Mark Lynch lambasted their “hypocrisy” in proposing to reduce a tax they “promised they would never introduce, and have since introduced”.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, because they both proposed a 7.5% cut, were accused of having a “cosy cartel” and of “meeting outside the chamber”.
But it was when Sinn Fein threatened to publicise how other councillors voted on the issue that it prompted strong responses from their colleagues.
Surprisingly it was the most mild mannered and patient of all, Padraig McEvoy, who responded prickly that “he had sat in the chamber for the past five years and wouldn’t be threatened by Sinn Fein”.
Cllr. Reada Cronin promised that Sinn Fein will “scrap this unfair tax when we’re in government”.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said that ‘You campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’, and given the LPT’s likely growing importance as a source of vital revenue for the State, she might one day come to hope that nobody reminds her she said that.