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City budget: Back to the drawing board

Allison T. Williams

City lawmakers on Wednesday sent Manager R. Steven Herbert back to the chopping block with his proposed $375.9 million spending plan for 2007.

Herbert, during the Suffolk City Council’s afternoon work session, unveiled his proposed operating budget, which calls for shaving the city’s real estate tax rate by 7 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The current tax rate is $1.06 per $100 of value.

His proposed spending plan is 20 percent higher than the city’s current $312 million budget, Herbert said. About 7 percent of the increase is created from two new revenue sources, the stormwater utility and state roadway-maintenance funds.

In the wake of last month’s budget retreat, several council members indicated they were expecting to see a budget that reduced the city’s current tax rate by 15 cents per $100 of assessed value. Herbert’s proposal on Wednesday cut the tax rate to 99 cents per $100 of taxable property.

“I’m confused,” said Councilwoman Linda T. Johnson. “I don’t think we got what we were expecting to get.”

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett agreed, saying citizens have been led to expect a more sizeable tax-rate cut because of the record-breaking residential assessments experienced in much of the city this year.

“I know it can be done,” he said. “We just need to tighten the belt and do it.

I have said I will not support any cuts to public safety, education or economic development.”

Other council members, including Mayor Bobby Ralph and Calvin Jones and Curtis Milteer, agreed the budget needs additional streamlining.

The 7-cent tax cut is needed to fund all the city’s new initiatives and would still leave Suffolk, one of the state’s fastest growing cities, with the lowest tax rate in Hampton Roads, Herbert said. Other area rates range from a low of 99 cents in Virginia Beach to a high of $1.38 in Portsmouth.

Highlights of Herbert’s proposed budget include:

n An allocation of $44.7 million to the school district, representing an increase of $5.5 million. Although significantly less than the School Board’s request, the funding would cover 5 percent pay raises for teachers, 4 percent for administrative support staff and cover the expenses of opening Creekside Elementary School.

n $2.3 million to fund average 6 percent performance pay raises for all 700 city employees, with the exception of public safety personnel. The move is meant to make salary levels competitive with their respective counterparts across the region.

Public safety employees are excluded because their pay scale was overhauled last year, Herbert said.

n $600,000 for the Suffolk Initiative on Youth, which has several initiatives designed to reduce youth violence. More than 30 percent of that allocation will be used to create a Youth and Family Unit within the Suffolk Police Department.

n $1.6 million for public safety, which will fund 17 new police and fire positions.

n $150,000 to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Although he didn’t prepare a budget showing a 15 cent rate cut, Herbert did attach an addendum showing how he would recommend trimming an additional $6 million

– which makes up a total of 15 cents per $100 n from the budget. Those recommendations include eliminating new police, fire and planning department positions, eliminating the youth violence program and reducing school allocation by $2.7 million.

allison.williams@suffolknewsherald.com