Council priorities

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 20, 2005

If you’ve been excited about the possibility of a big real estate tax reduction, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Many people have been calling for one in the wake of high-profile moves in Fairfax County and Virginia Beach to reduce the burden on taxpayers.

Last week’s announcement that the average assessment increase in Suffolk is 17 percent poured more fuel on the tax cut fire and council members are beginning to feel the heat.

Nonetheless, based on what I picked up during a brief stay at Friday’s council retreat, I wouldn’t bet on seeing any substantial breaks in the near future.

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I’m not advocating for or against such a move, mind you, just reporting on my personal observations.

Friday’s retreat was ostensibly to discuss council’s priorities in preparation for the 2005-2006 budget, which will be prepared over the next three weeks or so and presented to council.

Mayor Bobby L. Ralph’s opening remarks set the anti-tax cut tone of the presentation council members were about to hear from staff.

&uot;Tax rates should not be based on what other cities do,&uot; the mayor said, in an obvious reference to Virginia Beach, &uot;but on our revenues and the level of services our people deserve.

The mayor, joined by City Manager Steve Herbert, Planning Director Scott Mills and Finance Director Christine Ledford all focused remarks on the wonderful plan that council created in 1998 as well as their faithfulness since then in establishing and funding priorities.

The message was clear: If you cut taxes, it’s going to set back progress.

The same message was hammered home on each slide of the Powerpoint presentation; At the top of each slide it read: &uot;Stay the course, Focus on priorities, Work the plan,&uot; which, in English means, &uot;Don’t reduce taxes.&uot;

Like I said, I’m not arguing for or against a tax cut. The &uot;Stay the Course&uot; crowd makes excellent points in the potential for increased economic development to substantially reduce the long-term tax burden, but things like improved schools and reduced crimes are central to better development. In addition, millions more are needed to spend on new overtime rules for public safety officers, pay raises for employees, additional police and about $500,000 for new software for the real estate assessor’s office. Her current software is 12 years old and I don’t think it’s able to handle the extra zeroes. These are all important, but by the same token, I’d like to have some more money in my pocket, too. Quite the conundrum.

Regardless of staff’s best efforts, I feel reasonably confident some type of tax relief will be granted. People will stand for no less. I’ve heard talk of a 5-cent reduction, which will be about the equivalent of a fancy dinner out for two for most of us. It’s not much, but better than nothing.

And I agree with the mayor in that people can’t base their expectations on what other cities do. Other cities have different plans and needs and their city council’s have different priorities -and in the five years I’ve been listening to our city council discuss its priorities, putting more money in your pocket has not been among them.

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Speaking of real estate taxes, it appears they will be the car tax of this year’s gubernatorial race.

Last week presumptive Democratic nominee Tim Kaine unveiled his plan to reduce the real estate tax burden, a brilliant move on his part because it’s the number one concern on the minds of Virginians. As you’ll recall, Jim Gilmore won the governor’s mansion (in addition to plunging the state into a financial abyss) by promising to eliminate the car tax during the 1998 campaign.

Don’t be surprised if Jerry Kilgore, the presumptive Republican nominee, makes the complete phase out of the real estate tax the central theme of his campaign because he’s going to do something big to get out in front of Kaine on this issue. Insane? Perhaps, but it got Gilmore elected and that’s the overriding concern.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611 or at andy.prutsok@suffolknewsherald.com.