J. David Gray
Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 29, 2006
What are the top three issues facing Suffolk today and your thoughts for addressing those issues?
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A. Taxes, transportation and growth.
The number one issue at this time for all Suffolk citizens is the historically high property assessments and related taxing issues.
At this time, the easiest solution is reducing the mill rate from the current level of $1.06 per $100.
I support a reduction in the range of 15 to 20 cents. This still provides for additional revenue, but at a more reasonable level.
A greater concern related to the property tax issue is an issue of trust in our current local government officials.
Suffolk’s pervasive sentiment is a lack of faith in the current city management to make sound budgeting decisions that are in the best interest of the people.
A close second and third would be transportation and growth issues.
Transportation is a very broad issue that will not be solved by Suffolk alone. When the city takes over road maintenance in July, as part of that department I would like to form the Suffolk Transportation Advisory Council consisting of citizens from the boroughs of Suffolk and government officials.
Our citizens realize that only a combined effort between local communities and local government will result in solutions to this issue.
We need as many good and creative ideas as possible.
Growth issues relate specifically to commercial and residential development, and the necessary public services that go along with this growth. After having a few years to experience the results of the Comprehensive Plan and the Uniform Development Ordinance, it is time to discuss the effectiveness of these programs and how they are being followed.
We need to review these growth management tools and evaluate them on the basis of whether they are achieving results that give consideration to the interests of all the people of Suffolk.
Q. What are the top issues for the people in the borough you seek to represent?
A. Taxes, bridge closure and growth.
For the Chuckatuck borough, it is a tie between the closing of Kings Highway Bridge and the property assessments and related taxing issues. Very close behind these issues are overall transportation concerns and managing growth.
The entire issue of the Kings Highway Bridge and realignment must be addressed by our city government, and communicated to the residents.
The Kings Highway Bridge closure really causes concern, when the residents of Chuckatuck realize that the city is taking over the roads in July, and this allows for potentially more poor local government decisions.
The residents of the Chuckatuck borough are upset with the tax assessment situation, and this is compounded by the problems related to the closure of the bridge.
Again, the subsequent related issues regarding residential and commercial growth are magnified by the closure of the bridge.
Many residents of Suffolk have lost faith in city government, and we need to find a way to restore that trust.
Opening the bridge would provide some assurance that the current local government respects the desires and interests of the people.
Q. Transportation is playing out as a big issue in both the state and local political arenas this year. What, in your opinion, are the most critical transportation needs facing the city today?
A. The most critical transportation issues we face in the coming years are funding, priority, and credibility.
First and foremost, we need to fund our roads. The funding for roads will be more of a state issue, but on a local level, Suffolk must be prepared to provide proactive ideas to a future regional transportation board or other similar agency.
That is why we need to form the Suffolk Transportation Advisory Committee, consisting of residents and local government that provides a forum for cooperation and solutions.
Because of Suffolk’s size and geographical difficulties, we can expect to encounter significantly more problems that other adjacent localities with this issue.
Secondly, this cooperative committee would be able to provide a priority list that would be developed through cooperation between residents and government officials.
In addition, a transportation issue that has not truly developed yet, but will surely experience growing pains, is Suffolk’s takeover of the road maintenance from VDOT.
With all of the other issues we are dealing with, one of the last things we needed to deal with is the steep learning curve that is going to occur as this department is formed.
Along the same lines, the city needs to reconcile with VDOT and reestablish a cooperative relationship with this vital government agency as it will ultimately be involved in building the roads we need.
Further, the city council will have to improve communications regarding transportation issues.
We cannot have a similar type veil of silence that surrounds the Kings Highway Bridge and realignment project.
Q. The Kings Highway Bridge continues to be a sore spot between the city, the Virginia Department of Transportation and citizens in the Chuckatuck and Driver communities. What does the city need to do address the issue?
There is some debate as to who is going to own the bridge after the city of Suffolk takes over road maintenance in July.
However, regardless of who takes over bridge ownership, our city government must realize that the closure of the bridge is a problem.
The closure has eroded citizens’ trust in the city council and city management, has inconvenienced thousands of people on a daily basis, has burdened taxpayers more by forcing them to use a detour, caused public safety issues on the detour routes, negatively impacted businesses on both sides of the bridge, and essentially isolated a large, historically significant area of Suffolk.
The first step should be for the city council to take responsibility and develop a Corrective Action Plan that recognizes the problem, defines objectives, and provides solutions.
Secondly, since transportation issues are at the forefront of Suffolk’s future concerns, and the city is taking responsibility for road maintenance, city council and city management must absolutely reconcile with VDOT.
If the city cannot reconcile with VDOT, not only will Chuckatuck and Driver continue to suffer, any and all citizens of Suffolk could eventually be subject to the same ramifications of indifference when the city takes over the huge undertaking of developing a road maintenance department for the geographically difficult and large land expanse of Suffolk.
Q. Suffolk is one of the fastest growing cities in Virginia. What needs to be done to make sure the city is able to accommodate the growing demands being placed on our schools, roads and city services?
All three of the subjects are essential to Suffolk’s future.
We need to evaluate the effects of the Comprehensive Plan and the Unified Development Ordinance to ensure that we are accomplishing the desires of the residents.
I think it is too early to determine the effectiveness of these management tools in ensuring that the city has adequate facilities to accommodate the demands being placed on our schools, roads, and city services.
Education is vital to Suffolk, as our children are our future.
We must provide all children with the best possible education that we can.
This includes having and retaining quality teachers.
With a very poor relationship already established with VDOT, I would expect the city of Suffolk to have a very steep learning curve when we take over the road maintenance in July.
Unfortunately, the potentially negative effects of this decision may not be visible for one or two years as the department develops.
I think we had an arrangement that was beneficial to Suffolk, and personality conflicts guided this decision more than serious cost-benefit analysis.
This decision was not in the best interest of Suffolk.
City services provided to our residents are essential to quality of life issues.
We must ensure that these services are available in adequate levels to all citizens.
Smart growth prioritizes the need for these services to existing residents first.
The city has experienced a surge in youth and gang-related violence in recent months. What needs to happen in order to turn the tide on juvenile violence in Suffolk?
A.In order to reduce violence in our city, we need to ensure that we have a sufficient police force to handle the large geographical mass of Suffolk, a police force that is educated in youth and gang related violence, and a police force that is experienced.
This means that our police force should be paid commensurate with the importance of the public service they provide and that they should be educated and trained to recognize and respond to this type of criminal activity.
Further, we should provide our children with exciting alternatives to becoming involved in such activity.
These would include supporting additional after school activities, and an increase in the availability of parks and recreation centers that provide modern, safe, and healthy activities.
I would like to see the development of youth sports facilities that provide a healthy alternative.
We need these types of alternatives, especially during summer months, when our youth are most susceptible because of the increased free time.
Thirdly, the citizens of our communities, villages, and neighborhoods must become active in preventive programs that give our children alternatives to unwanted activities in our own backyards.
We need to bring together law enforcement, schools, youth services, and most importantly, the public to actively intervene and prevent this type of activity.
Q. Real estate assessments in Suffolk continue to soar each year, which, in effect, is a property tax increase unless City Council offsets it by reducing the mill rate. Do you think property owners are paying too much in taxes to the city? If so, how much of a reduction in the mill rate would you support and what do you think be cut from the budget to accommodate the reduction?
A. I support a reduction in the mill rate, as well as a comprehensive review of all city-assessed fees that are variations of taxes.
As I indicated previously, a reduction in the range of 15 or 20 cents is justifiable. Yes, at this time, we are paying too much in taxes to the city.
However, the more important issue alluded to in your question is the budget.
If we change the procedures through which our city develops a budget, we could eliminate the need for an &uot;annual mill rate review.&uot;
It does not make sense that this rate should be arbitrarily reviewed each year.
We need to reform the budgeting and taxing process.
I propose that we first develop a modified, or inflation adjusted, zero-based budget that forces prioritization of programs and activities on an annual basis.
Only through this type of line item expense identification and analysis can we isolate and identify the expenses that are truly necessary, as opposed to expenses that could be eliminated.
After a fiscally responsible budget has been agreed upon, and property assessment values have been assigned, it should be a simple calculation that results in a tax rate that is fair to all.
If we improve our budgeting methods, we can provide the necessary services that our citizens desire without excessively taxing them.
The focus of the city council and city management should be reducing the budget and reducing taxes, not increasing the budget to reach parity with increased revenues due to increased property assessments.
Why should voters elect you on May 2?
A. Chuckatuck needs to have a representative that will question the actions, expenditures, budgets, and comprehensive plans of the city council and the city manager; and when necessary, provide intelligent, alternative proposals to the status quo.
An elected city council representative’s responsibility is to manage change in the interest of the people; the voting booth is the opportunity for each resident to manage change directly.
The hard working taxpayers of the Chuckatuck Borough need representation that will question the actions, expenditures, and plans of the city council and the city manager, and intelligently propose alternatives to the status quo when necessary.