Now we are getting somewhere

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 3, 2006

Following a very long and tedious session of city department heads, minutely discussing their budget needs, council raised their tired heads and said, &uot;Enough.&uot;

In so many words, council members Curtis Milteer, Linda Johnson, Calvin Jones, and Leroy Bennett said they already knew all that stuff about budget needs. They only needed to know how much they could lower the property tax rate.

Like them, I was half asleep from seeing charts explaining why every dime the city can &uot;loot&uot; from the citizens would be spent to further Suffolk progress. These folks know their needs, &uot;wish lists,&uot; as Milteer described them. You could see, if you watched the work session, that a few wise council members were numb with the figures and fancy footwork.


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When asked by city officials to place little red dots on the list of &uot;needs&uot; to indicate their personal feelings about priority, the wheels came off the meeting.

It was obvious to everyone except city staff, Mayor Bobby Ralph and Councilman Charles Brown that just like last year, the cart was before the horse. Five council members were thinking about their constituent’s financial positions and wanted first and only to lop some pennies off the mill rate, namely 15 to 20 cents. These folks understood that because of the increase in the assessments the city would still gain millions with the rate cut. Financial Director Christine Ledford could tell them in milliseconds how much each penny of cut would reduce the city take.

Council knew it was past time for the city to live within a realistic budget that didn’t depend upon assessment increases to fatten the larder. So they, in charge of things, sent &uot;the bill back to committee.&uot; They will look at it again when it is revised, minus a few million. But now they can expect the city manager and staff to produce a revised budget trimmed to reflect just how badly services to the public will be affected, the trauma we will suffer. Makes you wonder what we would have done had there been no assessment increase.

Councilman Joe Barlow specifically wondered aloud about money set aside for transportation needs when the city indicated earlier that there would be millions extra by taking over our roads from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Score a big one for him.

Johnson was well prepared, but waded through a lot of meeting time before she finally had enough and said so as plainly as was possible.

Using his straightforward, easy-to-understand collection of metaphors,

Milteer made his points.

The mayor vainly spoke for caution when trimming tax rate, but only Brown was listening. As usual, Brown had a lot to say, but few could follow his themes or tell which side he was finally on.

Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh said, in so many words, that a democracy is always temporary in nature and will collapse soon after the voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From then on the majority will vote for candidates that provide the most benefits.

Our boys and girls in statehouses and up in Washington, D.C., learned quickly and have taken advantage of this human weakness for decades.

Similarly, there is no end to what a city can spend if given carte blanches and each item can be easily described as an absolute need.

But the city, like a mother going out to buy groceries, must take a different approach. There is a checkbook and a credit card and both have their limits. Our Council seems to have become a watchdog and is keeping an eye on both.

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