Old Leisure Centre- May 14th, 2007

As has been the case at many recent council meetings, the meeting of Monday May 14th featured a long discussion about the old and new Leisure Centres in Letterkenny. At this meeting, there where two motions (one from Cllr Jimmy Harte, one from Cllr Neil Clarke) calling on the council to keep the old centre open when the new centre was opened, leaving Letterkenny with two municipal pools. When this was put to a vote, the motion was rejected (Cllr Harte withdrew his motion as they where similar).

The motion to keep the centre open was supported by Cllrs Jim Lynch, Neil Clarke, Jimmy Harte and Gerry McMonagle. It was opposed by Ciaran Brogan, Jean Crossan, Dessie Larkin and myself. Cllr Victor Fisher was absent as he has been unwell recently. The vote was decided by Mayor Ciaran Brogan’s casting vote, which he used against the motion. An amended motion was passed, saying that the council would only sell the Leisure Centre site for a public or civic building, and would not sell it to a private developer.

I am disappointed, upset and annoyed both by what happened, and by the way it happened. In particular, I know that I and my party are going to be villified for what happened. In the end, I don’t feel there was any choice in the matter.

Nobody wants to close any leisure centre. Letterkenny, in particular, has done great work in the last decade in extending the range of leisure facilities available in the town. We’ve opened the Town Park, redeveloped Linear Park at Ballyraine and the 8 Acres at Ballyboe, and begun work on the new Leisure Centre at Sallaghraine and 20 acre park at Ballymacool.

The Council never intended to run two pools together. Indeed, Letterkenny was ahead of most local authorities building new Leisure Centres in that the old pool will remain open until the new pool opens its doors. For example, Naas in Co Kildare saw their old pool closed for some months before a new pool opened. Cllr Harte and Cllr Lynch backed this policy until relatively recently.

There is no shortage of political will behind leisure facilities in Letterkenny. The council has a budget of just over E8million per year for all our services and work in the town, and we’re about to open a Leisure Centre which has cost E22.7m to builld, and will then begin work on a new Park which will cost E3.5m to build. If it were at all possible to retain the old pool, it would have been done.

The sticking point for running both pools is the ongoing operating costs. Last year (2006) was the best year ever in the operation of the High Road Leisure Centre- it required a subsidy of just E90,000 to operate. This is for two reason: first, it was operated extremely efficiently, and secondly it was not upgraded substantially as the new centre was under construction. In previous years, it has been common for the Centre to require subsidies of E250,000 and more. I don’t think this is unreasonable; it is a great investment for any council to make.

We will now, however, be making large repayments on our loan (E5m) and overdraft facility (up to E6m) to deliver the new Leisure Centre and Town Park.

Back in October, when Cllr Harte begin claiming to support the campaign to keep both pools operating side-by-side, I made it very clear to him that it was not simply a case of “deciding” to keep both pools open; the Council would have to budget for money to run them both. I have said this in public meetings, in Council meetings and in private. Cllr Harte has always ignored this point, including at last night’s meeting. Cllr Harte did not attend this year’s budget meeting, when it was unanimously agreed by all other councillors that there would be a six-month subsidy set aside for operating the High Road Centre. More than this, Cllr Harte has made no attempt to address the budgetary issues facing this council in running both centres.

To put it painly, there are two ways in which the High Road Centre could have been retained. I have been working on both of them since last October, but have not found satisfactory answers on either front. I am particularly annoyed that those who would claim to support the campaign for retension of the Centre have made no effort to do either, despite claiming for months to wish to run both centres.

The options are either to (a) show where the current trade at the Leisure Centre could be greatly increased – it would need to Double to run it anywhere near current costs – or (b) show how the Town Council’s budget could be amended to cover the operating costs by sourcing money away from other programmes.

No Councillor who voted to retain the pool last night had any proposals on either of these arguments, and nobody even chose to address them when raised.

I have worked on them. Last year, as Mayor, I was forced to use my casting vote against funding for the Comedy Festival, as it had not been shown where it could be sourced without harming other budget programmes. I then spent days working with the Town Clerk to identify lines in our budget where savings could be made, and delivered the funding for the festival about a week later. This was over E10,000. If trade at the combined Leisure Centres could be increased by a massive 50%, we would have needed to find a subsidy of at least E400,000. That’s excluding any major refurbishment works required to bring it back to standard.

I gave a commitment to the Swilly Seals that I would do everything I could to keep the centre open. I have done that. I have met with the Seals on a number of occasions, I have discussed the issue with swimmers, teachers, parents and other groups who use the pool. I have spoken to councillors on fifteen local authorities in all parts of the Country to see whether any other authority has addressed this problem better (none comes near Letterkenny). I have gone through every line of the Councils budget. The money simply isn’t there; to deliver the minimum E400,000 would require a crippling 10% increase on the Town’s Commercial Rate, above the common inflationary adjustment. This would burden local businesses further. Either that, or the council would have to spend E400k less on social housing, road safety measures or some other budgetary item.

I would like to compliment the Swilly Seals on the way they have behaved throughout this process. They have been very honest and decent throughout the process. They have come forward with suggestions on how the council could have closed the funding gap. They did have some good suggestions, but these would have helped at most bring in about E60k-80k per year, leaving a shortfall around E340k (based again on massive increase in uptake at the pools). They have been proactive in engaging with the Councillors throughout recent months, and I hope they will continue to do so in the years to come.

At it’s most basic level, this has been the worst example of an issue being abused for political purposes that I have come across in my time in politics. This is my first time as an elected representative while a campaign has been ongoing, but it has left a very sour taste in my mouth. The genuine concerns of the Swilly Seals and the schools and members of the community who use the pool have been used for nothing more than electoral reasons. I’m not talking about Cllr Neil Clarke and Cllr Gerry McMonagle here; as new councillors, they (like myself) were not part of the decision to close the old Pool. Cllr Harte was. Since leaving Fine Gael and standing for the General Election he has changed his position on the pool completely, and has written many press releases and spoke on the Radio on numerous occasions. What he has not done, however, is made any effort to resolve the situation. He brought forward no proposals that would have addressed the funding problems faced. He failed to even acknowledge the issue when it was repeatedly put to him.

No doubt there will be numerous press releases issued this week, castigating both me and my party for the vote that was taken. At the end of the day, council policy was that the pool was being closed. Cllr Harte and Cllr Lynch* both approved this. The vote last night was to change that policy, but none of the Councillors putting forward the motions made any effort to make a case to change the policy, and to show how it could be funded. I’m still very angry about what took place last night, and the way in which it has been handled by those seeking to abuse the valid concerns of community groups for electoral purposes.

I have been in touch with the Council this morning again to ensure that they address all the concerns of the Swilly Seals, to ensure the club continues to thrive in the new facility.

I have worked on this issue for over six months, and was unable to find anyway in which the council could keep both facilities open. This is much more than those who will now claim to have supported retaining the Centre have done. We must remember that Letterkenny is not losing out; at no stage will the facilities on offer be reduced. The day the new centre opens, we will go from having a twenty-year-old pool, in drastic need of repair, to having the finest municipal leisure centre in the country. This is being lost in the midst of this debate.

A note on calculations: The current pool can take one school class at a time, as lessons take place only in the shallow end. The new pool has a moving floor, and is 20% larger. It is possible to raise the floor so that the entire pool is shallow, and lessons could take place at both ends. This would allow either (a) two classes from the same school or (b) a class to be split in two, to be taught in smaller groups. This is a great boost, however I have not taken account of it. This means that a 50% increase in trade may fall short of delivering even the optimistic figures I have used above.

* Cllr Lynch has spoken on a number of occasions on different ways in which external bodies could have helped in this situation. No external body has been interested in helping. He has not been abusing this issue the way others have. We faced a tough vote last night, and I wouldn’t blame him for the way he did vote.

My first post on this issue, which outlines my position in full, is on this page. You can see all my posts about the Leisure centres listed on this page

Leisure Centre Controversy: Update

Last night, I attended a public meeting in the Orchard Inn which discussed the proposed sale of Letterkenny Leisure Centre to fund the development of the new Sports Complex at Sallaghagraine.

The meeting was well attended, with appox 30 – 50 people and a handful of politicians.

I have discussed this issue at length here before, and I still stand by all that I said before. I feel it is vital that we do everything we can to retain the site, and if it can be shown that the Leisure Centre could continue to operate succesfully alongside the new Centre, that the Council should support this.

A number of suggestions were made which give us possible ways to move the issue forward. Doreen Sheridan-Kennedy suggested that the Council should work with Donegal VEC to attempt to sell the facility for use as a schools and educational facility. Cllr Neil Clarke suggested selling other lands to cover the money needed. Frank Gallagher, of the Green Party, suggested that the council should sell the new centre instead.

Cllr Jimmy Harte suggested simply reneging on the commitment that the council made in 2002 (before I was on the council, but while he was). When I raised the point that while the council could easily change the decision to sell the centre, the money (est E2 million) would have to come from somewhere, Cllr Harte said that was a matter “for the executive”. In effect, he was asking Councillors to write a cheque for E2 million (approx 25% of our annual budget), knowing that there was no money in the bank to cover it.

If the council were to do that, it would be a complete abdication of our responsibilities as Councillors, to the tax payers and rate payers in the town.

The new sports centre is a fantastic facility, unseen in most towns Letterkenny’s size. It would not have been possible for Letterkenny Town Council to commit to such a project (it’s an E18 million project, with E6 million in Central Government funding) unless they were able to secure loans. The council were only able to secure Government consent for such loans due to the healthy state of the Council’s finance. There is no massive stockpile of cash available, but there was no debt either, and a strong rate base to cover the repayments.

By suggesting the Council simply abandon the sale, without any idea of where to find the funding, Cllr Harte is proposing that we jeopardise not only the operation of both the site at High Road and the new centre, but also the ability of the Council to fund ambitious projects such as this in the future.

That is not something I could accept or support. I don’t think I would be alone in that. Even the Green Party’s Cllr Neil Clarke, who has strongly opposed plans to sell Council land in the past, is aware that the council needs to get this money somewhere, and raised the potential for selling alternative lands.

I believe this issue can be resolved, and the council can continue to develop and extend the services we provide in the town. But this needs to be done in a realistic manner, not by taking short-term decisions for the sake of political expediency.

I appreciate your comments on this matter. To prevent duplication, I ask that any comments are attached to the original post on the leisure centre.

Leisure Centre Controversy

Much controversy has erupted recently regarding the Council’s decision, taking a good few years ago, to sell the site of the current Letterkenny Leisure Centre, on the High Road, as part of the funding package for the new Regional Sports Centre, at Sallaghraine. A meeting took place this week, at which the Letterkenny Community Residents Association took the decision that they would attempt to oppose the closure. They have called another meeting, for October 24th at 8:30 in the Orchard, to discuss the plans further.

I have some reservations about parts of the plans for the new Centre, and have raised them both at Monday night’s Council meeting and in private with Council officials since. I am awaiting clarification on some of these issues back from the Council.

To clarify one point in particular, the Leisure Centre on the High Road is not turning a profit. The Centre is very well run, and has greatly improved its financial performance in recent years. But it is still losing money. Last year, it lost approx. E270,000, and continues at a similar rate this year. I have no problem with this; Letterkenny Town Council covers the loss, as part of our remit to provide a public Leisure service, Indeed, I consider this to be among the best money we spend.

There are three issues being muddled together as part of the current controversy:

  1. Closure of existing Leisure Centre
  2. Sale of site on High Road
  3. Management of new Centre, at Sallaghraine

I’d like to address those three items, in reverse.

Management of new Centre

The Town Council, before I was a member, took the decision that the best way to manage the centre would be with the involvement of an outside contractor with experience managing similar centres.

I have difficulty in accepting this. Currently, the Town Council succesfully manages our existing centre, and a similar body operates An Grianan Theatre. I fully believe we could effectively mange the new Complex in a similar fashion, and that the involvement of a third party would not be desireable.

However, I do not have the full facts behind the decision yet. When I get this information, I will be better able to discuss this issue.

Sale of site at High Road

The new development at Sallaghraine is budgetted at approx. E18.5 million. E6 million of this has come from Government funds, with the rest being delivered locally.

Part of this came from a loan of E5 million, secured by the Town Council. At the time the loan was issued, Letterkenny Town Council was one of only a handful of local authorities capable of getting approval for a loan of this size, due to the healthy state of the Council’s finances.

The sale of the site at High Road makes up a substantial part of the funding package for the new centre. The value of the site is estimated at E2 million.

My view on this is simple; if anyone can identify a better place to get the E2 million, I’ll listen to them and give it full consideration. As yet, nobody has suggested any other source for the funding.

It would be fantastic if Letterkenny Town Council could retain ownership of this valuable site for the future. I feel, however, that the new sports centre is a much better investment of the money than leaving the site there, unused, for the future.

Closure of existing Leisure Centre

Firstly, if you don’t know what is going into the new sports centre, please read this article first.

I live very near the current leisure centre, and have made regular use of it since it first opened. I learned to swim there. In my time as a Councillor, I have seen the huge efforts that go into running the Centre, and the great work done by the staff there.

As I said above, the Centre is currently running a (manageable) loss, despite having a high volume of visits. Letterkenny Town Council has committed to running the current Centre until the day the new Centre opens.

The big problem arrives when the new Centre opens. It is clear that people will be attracted to use the facilities of the new Centre. This would mean less of trade at the High Road centre, meaning it would require more of a subsidy from the Town Council. This is money that would have to be raised from local rates, and diverted from other projects in the town.

The operation of two centres would harm the trade in both, meaning two massive subsidies would be required from the Council, when we could run one centre with either a small loss, or potentially breaking even. When we consider the various strains on Council finances, I don’t believe that is justifiable.

I’m not an accountant, so I could be wrong in these points. If anyone cares to raise anything about these points, or any other, please leave a comment. It will go straight on to the page, and be viewable to everyone who reads this post.

For me, the most important issue in this is the employment situation for the staff the High Road centre. The Centre is run fantastically, and the staff there could provide invaluable support to the new Centre. It is vital that Letterkenny Town Council ensures the best possible way of ensuring we get our qualified, experienced staff from the High Road Centre to the new complex at Sallaghraine. I’m absolutely emphatic about this point, and it is connected to my views on bringing in an outside company to manage the new Centre.

I have posted this here in the hope of stimulating debate. I have raised the issues that are concerning me, and would welcome any comments you have to make on this project. If you would rather not comment directly on the site, you can get in contact with me directly.

Update: Post following public meeting on Oct 24th, 2006