Galway city and county councils will merge into a single local authority by 2021 at the latest after the Cabinet voted to press ahead with amalgamation this week.
Minister of State for Local Government and Electoral Reform John Paul Phelan presented the cabinet with a report on Wednesday endorsing the recommendation of the Galway Expert Advisory Group to merge the city and county councils.
The Expert Advisory group, led by Galway native Professor Eoin O’Sullivan, published its second interim report on the Galway councils on April 26th.
It recommends that local elections for May 2019 be held as planned for the city and county councils as they are, but that amalgamation should take place no later than 2021.
All elected councillors, 37 county councillors and 18 city councillors, will then sit on a unified council body until the 2024 local elections. It is expected that the electoral boundaries of municipal districts will be redrawn to accommodate the new council structure.
“This is the first step towards establishing a new unified Galway authority, which will maximise the potential of the region to maintain, secure and grow a sustainable economic base into the future,” Minister Phelan said.
“A unified council will provide a geographically balanced and integrated approach to economic development throughout Galway and further boost its vibrant cultural and artistic milieu.”
Minister Phelan will shortly make a legislative provision for the appointment of a single Chief Executive responsible for a combined local authority.
The report by the Expert Advisory Group found that a merged council would be better local economic development, “an amalgamated Authority combining Galway City Council and Galway County Council, will maximise the potential of the region to maintain, secure and grow a sustainable economic base into the future.”
However there has been local opposition to the merger with fears among city councillors that Galway city will lose out on funding under a merged council. There have also been worries that if electoral boundaries are redrawn in 2024, rural areas will lose some of their representation.
Issues before merging councils
The report by the Expert Group highlighted several areas of funding and staffing that would have to be addressed by the government for any merged council body.
According to the report council revenues have declined dramatically in the last 10 years, both in overall terms and in comparison with other councils.
Galway City council has a 2018 budget of €78.2 million, or €994 per person, down from €1,312 per person in 2008. The County Council has a budget of €112.3 million, or €626 person person, a significant drop from €1,004 in 2008.
Other, comparable authorities have an average budget of €1000 per person, and the report insists that Galway’s level of funding must be addressed for a combined authority to work.
The other area of concern for a new council is staffing. The combined city and county councils have 4.5 staff members per 1,000 population. Whereas other councils with a similar population and geographic area have between 5.6 and 7.3 staff per 1,000 population.
The lack of sufficient staff is an issue that has already been felt by the city council as it struggles to implement legislation and run services at existing staffing levels.
Acting Director of Services with the City Council Gary MCMahon told the city council at its May meeting that the city council does not have the staff to enforce the new busking bylaws which have been voted in. Nor can it take over running the Christmas market, as city councillors also wanted to do.
Before merging the councils, the Expert Advisory Group said: “existing deficiencies in respect of both the human and financial resources be expeditiously resolved as an essential prerequisite to the amalgamation process.”