Local Authorities Finance

Building Local Authority Finances.com

With the introduction of the Local Property Tax many people are for the first time being taxed directly for the funding of local services. We view this as a positive development from the perspective of strengthening local democracy, as there will now be a direct link between the level of services provided by local authorities and the price voters must pay. As a result, now tax-paying voters are understandably curious about what exactly these services are.

Localauthorityfinances.com is the fourth in our series of interactive web applications aimed at making public policy data easier to consume and understand by members of the general public. The goal of localauthorityfinances.com is to allow users explore the various activities funded by Local Authorities, and to equip them with the necessary information to make informed decisions. Users can explore their Council’s spending directly, compare their Council to a fictional “National Average”, or compare their Council to a selection of other Councils.

The Dataset

This has been our most ambitious project yet from a data-collection point of view. Budget data had to be sourced for each authority individually. In some cases, this was a simple exercise. In others, much effort had to be expended to source the necessary documents.

The data used refers to each Council’s estimates for 2014, using data from the Adopted Budget where possible, and using data from the County Manager’s Proposed Budget where not. Although the 2013 data is more easily available (it has already been collected and collated by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and can be found in excel form on their website) there have been a number of key changes to the funding of Local Authorities, so that 2013 figures would not provide an accurate reflection of the current situation.

The dataset covers all City and County Councils. To reflect the decision to amalgamate certain Councils, data for Limerick City and County Councils were combined, as were data for Waterford City and County, and Tipperary North and South.

The issue of Borough and Town Councils presented a complication: excluding them could present an inaccurate picture of the activities of local government within a county, but collecting the data for all 80 Borough and Town Councils would be a difficult task. To take the most extreme example, the combined budgets of Drogheda Borough Council and Dundalk Town Council (the two sub-councils of Louth County Council) made up 42% of total local authority spending in Louth in 2013. A decision was taken to include the most significant Borough and Town Councils, as well as those for which data was easily obtainable from the web. Upon launch, this included Drogheda Borough Council, Dundalk Town Council, Carlow Town Council and Castlebar Town Council. Budgets for these councils were merged with their parent County Councils’ budgets. Based on estimates using 2013 numbers, the dataset at launch contains 94% of total local authority spending.

Subsequently to the finalising of the dataset for the launch of the website, data was received from the following Borough and Town Councils, and will be added to the website shortly, raising the estimated coverage of the dataset to 96.5% of total local authority spending:

Ennis
Killarney
Tralee
Kilkenny
Monaghan
Tullamore
Clonmel
Athlone

The most significant council not included is Sligo Borough Council, which makes up an estimated 17% of local authority spending in County Sligo. For those in a position to share it, 2014 Budget data for Towns and Boroughs not listed above would be greatly appreciated.

Local authorities divide expenditure into 8 Service Divisions, analogous to central government Departments, with each Division further divided into Sub-Services. For the sake of simplicity, we combined two of the Divisions (Agriculture, Education, Health and Welfare Division, which overseas expenditure on services as dissimilar as Dog Wardens and Third Level Grants, and Miscellaneous Services, which includes costs linked to local representatives and the administration of rates and motor taxes) into an “Other” category. Some Sub-Services were similarly combined (e.g. Road Maintenance is divided into maintenance of National Primary, National Secondary, Regional and Local Roads in the local authority budgets).

Openness and Transparency

The creation of this data set would not have been possible without the co-operation of many individuals working in the local government sector. However, with voters now paying directly for the local services, the demand for easier access to information on council services is likely to grow. The abolition of Town and Borough Councils this year will significantly improve the accessibility of local government finance data. However, more can be done to improve the openness and transparency. At the very least, councils should release a copy of their budget on their website in a timely fashion following its ratification. Even better would be to provide budget tables in readable formats such as excel.

There is also a wide gulf in the quality of analysis contained within budget documents. Many councils provide the bear minimum by producing only the required statutory tables. The budget for Dublin City Council goes beyond the required statutory budget tables to provide additional analysis of the source and use of income for each division. Fingal County Council has made the most progress in terms of encouraging the use of data through the Fingal Open Data website (data.fingal.ie), which includes datasets and visualisations for all manner of local authority activities. Examples such as these show what can be done to promote greater transparency and understanding regarding local authority finance..

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2 Comments

  1. Ed Carroll 12 May 2014 at 9:09 am

    Great to have this data set on the arts spend of Local Authorities which can be very useful for further research

  2. Donal O’Brolchain 23 May 2014 at 8:18 am

    Excellent public service.
    An example of the kind of work that those committed to Open Government do. In Ireland, Fingal CC staff have been prominent in the Open Data movement here in this Republic.

    The next thing to try to unravel is the arbitrary and whimsical way that the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government allocate funds to local authorities. The challenge was set out in the October 2013 Council of Europe report on Local Democracy in Ireland

    “….. the equalisation mechanism is not transparent and, although local governments have the formal freedom to adopt budgets, such freedom is severely limited in practice;
    f. the scale of local taxes and the power of local authorities to determine the rates are very limited;

    …… to review the equalisation mechanism in order to render it transparent and ensure that the rules pertaining thereto are established in consultation with the local authorities;…..
    …..
    Financial equalisation
    81. The Local Government Fund provides lump sum grants to local authorities and is expected to serve also as an equalisation tool. However, the system of distribution of grants to local governments from the Local Government Fund is not transparent and the rules have been set without consultation with local authorities. The equalisation formula existed for a short period only, because it included about 800 parameters and was not operable in reality. From 2008 onwards, equalisation has been done on the basis of an administrative assessment of needs and resources.
    82. The Government have informed the rapporteurs that while equalisation does not operate through a simple formula or model, it does involve a process using real current data. Developed on the basis of a “needs and resources” study of local government financing, it takes into account the individual circumstances of local authorities in determining annual funding allocations, (making use of regular dialogue through quarterly financial reports and specific submissions covering, inter alia, demographic, social, economic factors.
    …..
    150. Local financial managers indicated that the level of discretion as to how to use revenues is strictly limited – about 90 % of revenues need to be used to cover “fixed” costs. And as said earlier, the equalisation system remains a mystery to practically everyone in the local government system.”

    https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?id=2113703

    This is a recipe for arbitrary and whimsical government, based on strokes pulled off by those who have access to the Minister, aided and abetted by the imbalance in councillors throughout the country. While I have the data, I find that I cannot load the table in this posting

    On what basis can anyone justify the following
    1. Leitrim having nearly three times the number of councillors/population (1 Councillor/1,767 people) compared to the average (1 Councillor/4,960 people);
    2. Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown (1 Councillor/5,157 people) having 1.6 times the the number of councillors/population as Dublin City (1 Councillor/8,375people) has;
    3. Carlow having having 1.6 times (1 Councillor/3,034 people) the the number of councillors/population as the average (1 Councillor/4,960 people);
    4. Cork City (1 Councillor/3,846 people) having nearly twice as many councillors/population as Cork County (1 Councillor/7,269 people)?

    Given that local government gets most of its funding from central government, this allocation of councillors skews the lobbying power against the Greater Dublin Area. This is further exaccerbated by the power of local councillors as the majority grouping of the Senate electorate

    This imbalancevariation in councillors/population would be entirely reasonable if
    • The population of each local authority were to decide how many councillors they wanted
    and
    • Councillors do not form the vast majority of the electorate of the 43 Senators (from 60)
    and
    • Local government got most funding from local sources.

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