Council give up on €400,000 debts

Laois County Council underspent just under €20,000 last year, but it has written off a massive €400,000 it is owed in unpaid rate, water charges and other bills.

Laois County Council underspent just under €20,000 last year, but it has written off a massive €400,000 it is owed in unpaid rate, water charges and other bills.

Despite the huge write-off, the council’s head of finance, Gerry Murphy said the council were still able to balance their books at the end of last year.

He also warned that although the council were reluctant to cut off anyone’s water supply, it was an option they were now examining. The council is now looking at how it bills for water usage. The top 25 consumers will now be billed on a monthly basis instead of three times per year.

Mr Murphy said that rates were normally paid within a year, with payments made on April 1 and July 1 but they were now allowing customers to pay them over eight or ten months.

“This can go into the first three months of the next year and we have to carry that for a few months. There are certain cases where the debtor won’t engage with us and we have had to employ solicitors,” he said.

Just one councillor raised concerns. Cllr James Daly said one area of concern was the debt which has been written off in the last year.

“I understand there has to be write offs, but it was over €400,000 in 2011. This must a huge concern as it’s only going to get worse not better,” he said.

He explained that the council’s annual financial statement, normally prepared by the end of March had to prepared by February 24, this year - to meet the EU/IMF’s timeframe.

“We spent in excess of what we had budgeted in certain areas, but we received additional grants from the Government particularly for roads,” he said.

Mr Murphy said the council had carried out a review of their water services where some debts dated back 10 years or more.

“We felt whatever couldn’t be paid we should write off. In some cases we don’t have a choice as some debtors refuse to engage and we have to start legal proceedings.

“Overall we are pretty satisfied with the result and have managed to reduce our overall defecit every year since 2002.

“Some year’s its only €5,000 or €10,000 but this year it was almost €20,000,” he said.

But he said it was getting increasingly difficult each year to balance the books.

“It gets more difficult each year, but it important that Laois County Council show leadership and show that we are able and well capable of managing our budgets.”

Mr Murphy explained that an overspend in some areas such as unfinished housing estates, building control and street cleaning.

The council were also able to transfer more than €400,000 to their capital fund, but the head of finance explained that these funds had either already been spent or would be by 2013 or 2014.

County Manager, Peter Carey explained to members that the local authority were obliged to balance their accounts as part of the EU/IMF regime. He said they were also subject to close scrutiny now.

“It’s an achievement to be able to make a small surplus in a difficult operating environment. Some hard choices had to be made and this is going to be an on-going problem.”

He said the council were examining all their options and in future would collaborate with other agencies to create what he called “patchwork budgets.”

“It’s a fantastic position to be in to be able to sit here today and praise Gerry Murphy and his staff,” the manager added.