STAFFING levels in Irish local authorities are as much as eight times less than their UK equivalents. According to figures obtained by the Sunday Tribune, local authorities hire an average of one staff member per 124 members of the public in Irish counties.

Many of these employees, who include contract, temporary and seasonal staff, have already felt the pinch of budgetary cutbacks.

The issue of staffing levels in Ireland has come into sharp focus since the recent McCarthy report on recommended public spending cuts advocated a substantial reduction in the number of local authorities from 34 to 22.

Figures show that in the UK, local governments employ a much higher proportion of staff than in Ireland. In Scotland you will find one staff member for around 16 members of the public; in Wales one for every 18. English local authorities – despite the recent cull of almost 7,000 employees – have one staff member for every 34 or so people.

There is now a real fear that local authority staff in Ireland will be placed on a shorter working week before the end of the year, reducing further the proportion of service staff to citizens.

While the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has not required that people be let go, it has said all authorities must stay within their operational budgets for 2009. The massive payroll burden accounts for a large chunk of annual running costs.

Frontline services like cutting grass, cleaning beaches and providing lifeguards have already been affected by considerable belt tightening but local authority sources now say curtailed working weeks could follow.

A crude way of reducing costs

Shorter working weeks would complement sanctions already in place, including the public-service recruitment freeze, the non-renewal of contract staff and an end to overtime and allowances. There are also the incentivised career breaks and early-retirement schemes designed to lever employees out of the public-pay sector.

According to sources, there is a growing sense of frustration among those in local authorities, who say the above measures are too random and could have a detrimental effect on a council's ability to carry out its work. For instance, if contract staff who find their roles terminated are specially trained to operate in certain areas, those voids may not be easily filled by the permanent staff left behind.

There are concerns that certain aspects of council operations may fall foul of the downsizing, as much by cuts in expertise as in manpower.

"It [the cancellation of contracts] is a very crude way of reducing costs because you have very little control in what you have left; you may be left with less productive staff," said one well-placed source.

"It will make it very difficult for local authorities in the next five years because it will be very demoralising for the people who are here."

Those who leave through early retirement or career breaks may also leave gaps in the system. "There could be people who have a senior manager gone and they are expected to produce the same amount of work and meet the same deadlines."

A 'simple' reduction in staff numbers across the board would prove problematic, sparking considerable union activity in negotiating redundancy packages, for which the government would have to find large amounts of money to finance.

By leaving the issue entirely to the devolved local governments, the matter becomes simply one of staff and services. Neither are easy to cut but both, to varying degrees, are taking the hit.

"I can't see anybody doing anything [about standardised staff reduction] without something national and there is nothing on the cards at the moment," said a senior council insider. "I can't see local authorities actually laying anyone off [but] they also have to bring in a balanced budget at the end of the year.

"If a local authority finds itself in difficulty they may have to reduce the working week for their staff. I know some local authorities have offered extended unpaid leave to staff throughout the summer."

Shorter weeks, too, would have inherent problems. Jim O'Shea, president of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland (AMAI), said: "I would say [local authorities are no closer to imposing three-day weeks] as much negotiations will have to take place between the Department of Finance and the Department of the Environment on one side, as well as the trade unions representing the staff side, before any changes in the terms and conditions of employees occur.

Local authorities spend over €5bn a year

"Reports to date say the non-renewal of temporary workers' contracts is the first stage of the process of implementing cash savings to meet shortfalls in the annual budget," said O'Shea. "One has to be extremely cautious in implementing staff reductions on a supply-and-demand basis."

O'Shea said while in some areas – road maintenance, environmental regulation enforcement – local authorities are "blatantly understaffed", the drop-off in the construction sector means planning departments may need fewer workers.

In a national breakdown of staffing levels, the average amount of staff per member of the public in Ireland falls between 124 and 132, when rounded-off figures are taken into account.

Eleven local authorities, including Dublin City and Cork City, employ more than the average, with as many as one staff member per 74 members of the public. But 21 local authorities employ less than that average. At the lower end of the scale, Meath County Council has one member of staff for every 212 members of the public it serves.

According to the recent McCarthy report on proposed cutbacks, "local authorities spend over €5bn per annum on current items.

"Given the scale of the spending and the current challenging budgetary situation there is scope to reduce current expenditure by at least 10%," it says.

"Local-authority revenue is decreas­ing and local authorities should take this opportunity to trim expenditure and generate efficiencies in programmes and administration."

The report says a "rationalisation" of the number of local authorities would also be prudent, although movement in this regard is expected with the pending White Paper on Local Government due by the end of the year.

Commentators on this point agree a reduction in the amount of local authorities – particularly urban district councils and town councils – would make sense but say a slash-and-burn exercise would be met with considerable opposition.

As things stand, Ireland has a total of 34 local authorities, meaning an average of one for about every 124,700 people.

Labour's finance spokeswoman Joan Burton has criticised the tack of local government spending reductions saying blind cuts to contract staff could mean targeting the wrong areas.

"That seems to be what is happening," she said. "They are cutting a lot of contracts because they are the most flexible but they can't distinguish between people doing frontline services and administration and that is really the difficulty.

"I am not sure yet that local authorities have come to terms with what is happening and, like a lot of public bodies, they are finding it extremely hard to get their heads around the kind of cuts they are being asked to make."

Three-day working week

The country's largest local authority, Dublin City Council – which has shed more than 200 staff members in 2009 – has said payroll expenditure reductions are an "essential requirement" in realigning expenditure.

However, it strongly denied reports last week that officials were considering reducing the working week of some staff members to just three days.

"No consideration has to date been given to implementing a reduction from five to three days in the working week of [Dublin] City Council employees," it said in a statement.

"This would have very sensitive industrial relations implications associated with it and is not currently being discussed as a proposed measure to bring expenditure into line with income."

To date in 2009, it said, the payroll expenditure reduction has been achieved through the non-filling of vacant posts arising from retirements, the granting of career breaks, the non-renewal of temporary contracts and a reduction in overtime costs.

"Every effort is being made to minimise the impact on service delivery as a consequence of the non-filling of vacant posts through the reassignment of staff to areas of greatest need."

At the beginning of this month, Cork County Council, the country's second largest, had reduced its temporary staff by 80% alongside substantial reductions in overtime.

It revealed overtime costs were down €3.7m and the number of contract staff was reduced from 323 in June 2008 to 44 by April 2009 – a clear indication of the kind of measures being taken in the war on overspending.

Despite all of this, the resulting savings are expected to have minimal impact on the bigger picture. Figures quoted showed it would amount to just €6m; last year's wage bill was €163m.

Fingal County Council, which serves 240,000 people, has said it anticipates coming in on or near budget for 2009, but at a price. "A senior management sub-group focused on overtime and allowances, looking at how a wide range of services could be provided most effectively across the organisation, reducing the overall cost to the council," a statement explained.

"A new Audit and Efficiency Unit was also established from existing staff to look at how we can work more efficiently."