By Ciarán McCarthy
There was a tense atmosphere yesterday in Sligo County Council's chamber as all eighteen county councillors squared up for battle against the the council executive over the proposed closure of one or more of the county's libraries in Sligo Town (Central), and the community libraries in Ballymote and Tubbercurry.It emerged later in the meeting that the the council has three more library service points; Enniscrone Branch Library, Mobile Library Service and Local Studies Library.
As the meeting got underway, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ciarán Hayes came under a series of questions from Sinn Féin's Cllr Thomas Healy who had proposed a motion under Section 140 of The Local Government Act 2001 which outlines that the county CEO should ensure that all county libraries remain open during normal working hours.
This was a last ditch attempt by the elected officials to secure the future of Sligo's library services which are currently under a 'rolling closures' order due to lack of staff caused by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government's instruction to downsize the number of staff employed by the council. The CEO has to date reduced the number of staff by 37 per cent (237 people) however the Department, under Minister Simon Coveney, is insisting on a 42 per cent reduction to help relieve the enormous financial burden inherited by the CEO.
A recent public protest saw over 500 people voice their disapproval at any move to close part of the vital service.Halted
Just 20 minutes into the meeting the proceedings were halted by the Cathaoirleach (Leader) Hubert Keaney as Mr Hayes informed the assembly that he had just received an email from the Department.Before reading the full contents of the letter, the CEO told the stunned councillors that the Department had just given consent for him to hire the six more staff required to run the county's library service.
There was palpable silence as the news, which had in effect scuppered the motion, was absorbed.
Each councillor in turn welcomed the news with many warning of the continued financial problems facing the council.It subsequently emerged that the submission for extra staff by Mr Hayes to the minister was made just last Friday, 30 September.
Fianna Fáil's Cllr Rosaleen O'Grady stated she was 'very suspicious' of the message received from the Department. She said that her experience over the years showed that it was unusual for a departmental reply to come so speedily. She added that she 'would be keeping a close eye on the situation'.
Some councillors said they were relieved that they had not voted for a 15 per cent increase in the Local Propery Tax last week as proposed by the Cathaoirleach, Cllr Hubert Keaney to help alleviate the financial pressure by adding another €750,000 in the council's books.Cllr Tom Mac Sharry told Sligo Today, "Thank God we didn't vote for the increase. I shall be telling the voters in the next local election that a vote for Fine Gael is a vote for higher taxes."
Cllr Seán MacManus (SF), while also welcoming the good news, praised his council colleagues for uniting in their effort and that the busting of the recruiting embargo had been a substantial victory. However he warned the 'we are not yet out of the doo-doo.'
Welcoming the approval from the Department Independent Cllr Declan Bree said “What is noteworthy is the fact that it was only last week that a formal request was made to the Department to fill the specific vacant library posts. This crises and ongoing closure of our libraries is outrageous and unacceptable. No other county in the country has to tolerate such closures."
Cllr Healy agreed to defer his Section 140 motion,
Mr Hayes, while thanking the library staff who had suffered the uncertainty of their future for months, said that the 'rolling closures' would have to continue while the recruitment procedure got underway immediately.
He confirmed he was meeting with Impact Union officials today, Tuesday, to discuss the situation.Mr Hayes also warned that the current financial plan can work to reverse the council's precarious financial state but at the 'expense of services.'
Councillors stated that their attention will now concentrate on replacing much needed outdoor staff.