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City should be run like a business

During the campaign, and up to Wednesday’s budget meeting, there’s been a lot of talk associated with the tax rate and budget, and about the need to be running Suffolk like a business, from candidates and sitting councilmen alike.

Based on the discussion at last week’s special budget meeting n or whatever it was that was supposed to be n it’s obvious that if Suffolk is being run like a business, it will soon be headed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Anyone who has been in business for even a small amount of time knows that when you have to make cuts, for whatever reason, the first place to look is at your payroll. That is almost always your biggest expense and the City of Suffolk is no exception.

Of the approximately $135.5 million in the originally proposed General Fund expenditures, very nearly half, $65,322,453, is listed as “personnel costs.”

To look at this another way, of the original 99 cents per $100 of assessed value the city manager recommended we be charged as tax on our homes and land, 88 percent was for personnel costs.

Yet during the meeting Wednesday, while there was lots of talk about cutting worthwhile programs like curbside recycling and bus service, the only mention of personnel costs was in deferring or eliminating one planned new position in planning, one new position in public works and two new basically custodial positions in parks and recreation.

According to the original proposed budget n the one based on a real estate tax rate of 99 cents n there were 1,197 city employees. Dividing that by the $65,322,453, it costs the taxpayers $54,571.81, on average, for each city employee. So, eliminating the four new positions mentioned above will likely result in savings of about $218,287, or about 29 percent of one penny on the mill rate. One penny on the mill rate, according to the finance director, represents $750,000.

The council voted Wednesday for a rate of 94 cents, which is five cents, or $3.75 million less than what the city manager originally proposed. More of that cut needs to come from personnel expenses, significantly more.

In the interest of fairness, since personnel expenses account for 48 percent of the general-fund expenses, personnel expenses should account for 48 percent of the $3.75 million in additional cuts council ordered n or $1.8 million.

That’s the equivalent of about 33 positions. Of course, corresponding services associated with those employees would be reduced as well.

However, most, if not all, council members said public safety (police and fire) should be off limits to cuts. That reduces the total personnel costs in play to $40,948,845, or 30 percent of the general-fund expenses. Thirty percent of the $3.75 million council wants eliminated is $1,132,500, or the equivalent of nearly 21 average positions.

The budget presented, that is expected to be presented to council tomorrow, reflecting the 94-cent mill rate, should have 21 fewer positions in it than the first one they received.

Chances are, however, that, the budget council receives on Wednesday will reflect few personnel cuts and draconian, hurtful cuts to services that citizens depend on instead.

If so, it should be rejected and sent back. There’s a good chance, though, it will be accepted on a 4-3 vote. If that happens, you can rest assured it was more out of spite than any concern for running Suffolk like a business.

Andy Prutsok is publisher of the News-Herald. A version of this column appeared earlier in the Editor’s Blog at www.suffolknewsherald.com.