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Pat Dowling, CEO Clare County Council.

€10m Ennis loan passed after heated exchanges

Reservations over funding ‘private company’ and possible neglect of other districts

CLAIMS and counter claims were expressed by county councillors during heated exchanges before a controversial €10 million loan was approved for the Ennis 2040 Designated Activity Company (DAC) by a majority vote.
Ennis 2040 Designated Activity Company (DAC) has been registered as a company to assist in identifying opportunities for development and employment in Ennis and making the town an attractive place to live and work.
While councillors support investment for Ennis, several expressed grave reservations about the new funding mechanism proposed by the council executive at a meeting on Monday, and the lack of a similar package for rural Clare.
The loan was passed by 23 votes to five, with Councillors Tony O’Brien, Gerry Flynn, Donna McGettigan, P J Kelly and Susan Crawford officially recording their opposition.
Some of the remaining councillors who supported it – Pat Burke, Joe Killeen and Ian Lynch – did so reluctantly.
Councillor Johnny Flynn said the Clare Rural Development Forum had helped attract significant investment to the county, while the 2021 Budget adopted expenditure totalling €23 million in rural capital projects.
In addition to the allocation of more than €25 million in EU and Leader funding to Clare, he noted there has been significant Clár funding, which he fully backed.
He also fully supported the allocation of €1,400 million to develop transport infrastructure in Limerick, Shannon and South-East Clare over the next decade.
While the new vision for Ennis is coming a bit late, he proposed the council should be borrowing multiples of €10 million to boost job creation and development in the county capital.
He cited a local economic plan, which revealed half of the jobs in Ennis were taken up by people living in North, North East and West Clare.
Taking issue with views expressed by Councillor Gerry Flynn and Tony O’Brien in last week’s Clare Champion, Councillor Clare Colleran-Molloy said no new jobs of consequence have occurred in Ennis recently, while approving this loan will not undermine or preclude funding for rural areas.
Having backed the Ennis 2040 Strategy and the Ennis 2040 DAC, she said councillors were now approving the resourcing of the latter. She said the council is the sole shareholder of the company, will have full sight of its activities and councillors will be updated twice a year.
The proposed €10 million loan constitutes “seed capital”, which will be drawn down as needed and only based on best business case for each project being demonstrated to the DAC Board.
She said Limerick had attracted economic development and public realm improvements from funding the Limerick 2030 DAC to the tune of €30 million.
The loan was also supported by Ennis Councillors Mark Nestor and Pat Daly albeit with a concern about granting a loan to a private company, but he felt it was important the council will be leading it.
It was opposed by Councillor Gerry Flynn who said his concerns were well founded in view of the response to a list of questions submitted on governance and other matters by Councillor P J Kelly.
“At a time of financial uncertainty, I can’t risk our county budget. This company will have powers I can’t support. I would consider it an affront to democracy. All municipal districts are entitled to investment in a balanced way.
“Shannon has not benefited from being part of the Limerick Shannon Metropolitan area. Limerick’s population and development quadrupled but Shannon’s stagnated.”
Councillor Kelly tabled an amendment deferring the proposed loan until such time as a pro rata investment and parallel plan for the development of rural Clare took place.
However, his amendment was not accepted, with chief executive, Pat Dowling stating this would take an agreed agenda item off the agenda, which wasn’t an amendment.
This was challenged by Councillor Kelly who stated an amendment is defined as something to “add words or take from”.
“That means to alter the original proposal. If that is insisted upon here, beidh lá eile.”
Stressing he was not against investment in Ennis, he merely wanted an equal investment in the rest of the county, as rural Clare is “dying” and had been hit by school closures.
“I am disappointed councillors didn’t get a chance to vote for my proposal to give the €10 million to Ennis and something to rural Clare.
“This is one of the most disappointing moments of my life. This plan was pulled off the agenda for the May meeting because there was panic it wouldn’t be carried.
“A lot of rural councillors may have changed their mind but they wanted me to put in an amendment for rural Clare. This is undemocratic.”
Mr Dowling pointed out the DAC is a “wholly-owned council legal entity that is accountable to the council”.
Having spoken to Local Government Minister Darragh O’Brien, Mr Dowling said the minister is producing a pilot programme to upgrade waste water treatment schemes and stressed the council wanted to be ahead of others improving these facilities in local towns and villages because Irish Water will not do it.
“This is not about Ennis or anywhere else. Do we want Ennis to stagnate or co-develop that will benefit all. Two plus two will equal five here when we have a plan for our county town.
“Significant investment has gone into West Clare. When we spent €2.5 million providing a €2.5million digital hub in Ennistymon, Ennis councillors didn’t object. We need an economic plan for rural Clare.”
Minister O’Brien will be coming to Quilty on August 27.
Councillor Tony O’Brien said he was saddened the debate had degenerated into a “rural versus urban”, which should never be the case.
While Councillor O’Brien described the Ennis 2040 plan as “fantastic”, he described giving a €10 million loan to what was essentially a private company without any real control as “astonishing”.
“If the loan goes belly up, it falls back on councillors to make good the loan.”
He expressed concern councillors were abdicating their responsibility if they approved this loan and warned one council department could end up bidding for funding or land against another.
He proposed a new working party should be set up to secure a consensus over a three-month period on the best mechanism.
Councillor Pat Hayes called for an implementation strategy for rural development.

by Dan Danaher

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