Blame weak council, not strong manager

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Editor, the News-Herald:

I'm very frustrated over what I see as a very dangerous trend in escalating property taxes throughout the entire Hampton Roads area.

Most cities are considering reducing mil rates; Suffolk doesn't seem so inclined.

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However, I'm also concerned recently that several good people are starting to coalesce around both a cause and a solution that may be off the mark.

This is that Suffolk's city manager is the problem here, and getting rid of him is the solution. While I agree that Suffolk's city manager is too strong, I believe this is primarily because Suffolk's City Council is too weak.

The council has a responsibility to ensure that the city manager produces a plan supported with facts, figures, logic, and passion — but that it also clearly spells out the possible downsides. By not insisting on the full picture, the

city manager comes to the table loaded for bear and the city council comes in with blinders on.

Is it any surprise who seems to win all debates?

The people of Suffolk need to realize that there is a larger issue here. Seventy-five percent of the population is either not planning on homesteading in Suffolk or they make their own money from the 75 percent.  For all of these people, escalating appraisals and people moving in and out are not a threat at all.  These people include the military, the young and mobile, kids looking to go elsewhere, people only here because of jobs, and builders/developers and real estate agents.

What used to be a reasonably high mil rate becomes a heavy cross to bear for the rest of us during periods of escalating property inflation because we're staying here and we have no intention of selling our properties (unlike the 75 percent) and many of us will be working out of retirement funds within a decade or so — if we aren't already.  That's why North Carolina's law mandating that property taxes remain revenue neutral as house appraisals go up makes perfect sense. Then, whenever a house does sell, the municipality gets their cut — as they should — because an economic event occurred that generated the money to pay those taxes with.  If an area has high turnover, that just works out for the municipality of the area with the high growth. 

So we need to be sensitive to a point to understand what most people look for when they buy a house.  If you are in the 75 percent, you look for a nice house that you can afford to live in and hope it is worth more when you sell it in a few years.  That isn't necessarily bad.  But if you are not going anywhere, have retired, or have calculated what it is going to take to live in an area after retirement — this escalating real estate tax can destroy you and force you out of your house — but definitely will squeeze your quality of life — just to stay in place.

As to the city manager, if he pleases 75 percent of the population, he's doing good.  If, at the same time, he can show dramatic growth in a dying rural city, he's padded his resume nicely and — when and if he gets fired — he's got an impressive resume that lots of other municipalities will suck up.  So don't be too critical over what seems like good business. 

But we need to find a medium ground that is fair. I'm suggesting that this come in the form of a $15,000 to $20,000 Impact Fee for every bedroom added to Suffolk by developers. That will give Suffolk the money needed for a growing city without throwing all the hidden costs of that growth onto the backs of people who are already residents.  This is an issue the city should be arguing very loudly about in Richmond, because as a Dillon Law State (one of only 6-8 remaining), Impact Fees can only be imposed with the approval of the General Assembly, and the builders and developers are lobbying furiously to keep us in the last century in that regard — and the municipalities and voters are allowing Richmond to get away with it.

George H. Mears, Cdr. USN (Ret.), ME, MBA