Council divided on tax break

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 19, 2005

Four percent pay raises for city employees will cost $1.4 million.

Continued investment in neighborhood revitalization, $1.2 million.

Getting the new north Suffolk library open, $2.7 million.

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Despite a seemingly endless list of funding priorities, several Suffolk City Council members on Friday called for a reduction in the city’s tax rate next year.

&uot;Citizens here deserve nothing less that a 4 percent reduction in the tax rate,&uot; said Councilman Curtis R. Milteer Sr. during the city’s five-hour budget retreat at the Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center.

Milteer’s comment comes two days after City Assessor Maria Kattman’s announcement that property values in Suffolk will jump an average 16.5 percent next year. Citizens now pay taxes of $1.08 per $100 of assessed property value.

During the retreat, Finance Director Christine Ledford briefed city leaders on the funding of council initiatives.

City Manager R. Steven Herbert’s proposed operating budget is likely to recommend $1.2 million for hiring 13 police officers and six firefighters, $1.4 million to cover state-mandated overtime for public safety employees and $625,000 for a 20 percent jump in health insurance costs, she said.

&uot;The police overtime is a big-ticket item,&uot; said Ledford.

She recommended the city consider investing $550,000 annually to provide citywide mosquito control services and $14 million to complete the undergrounding of utilities on Main and East Washington Street.

&uot;We need to finish the job,&uot; Ledford said, referring to the ongoing downtown roadwork. &uot;It’s an important income generator…the impact made by undergrounding the utilities will bring significant investment.&uot;

She also recommended that council replenish the city’s reserve fund-its &uot;rainy day&uot; money -by $2.5 million.

Despite an extensive wish list, council members Joseph Barlow and Linda T. Johnson echoed Milteer’s sentiment.

&uot;Even though we have great needs, the impact on taxpayers needs to be moderate,&uot; Barlow said. &uot;Some degree of relief should be there.&uot;

Mayor Bobby L. Ralph urged against rushing into a tax cut, and said the city needs to make sure it will not be detrimental to the city’s growth and level of services to citizens.

&uot;It’s easy to wave the flag supporting a tax reduction,&uot; he said. &uot;I highly suggest we move with caution. We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the future of the city.

&uot;Our assessments are in line with the market and our tax rate is one of the lowest in the region.&uot;

While a tax cut might be good for the wallet, it would impact existing services, said Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett.

If there is any way to reduce the tax rate, I strongly support that,&uot; Bennett said. &uot;But anytime you cut taxes, you are going to have to cut services somewhere.&uot;