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Cutting the budget

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

I’d be surprised if that’s happening and if council members think what they did on Wednsesday was running it like a business they are sadly mistaken.

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 your biggest expense, particularly in a service business, which is basically what a municipal government is. You don’t cut your service to your customers, at least not at first. You trim your payroll, you try to make your employees more efficient and then, if you are still not hitting your goals, you trim services back.

Nobody even mentioned that at Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, we got talk about eliminating the recycling program, which accounts for a whopping quarter of a penny on our tax rate and is among the most worthy program our city offers. The other big one was HRT. It accounts for 8/10s of a penny, but still an important service to many Suffolk residents.

I picked up a copy of the city’s budget, the binder that they gave to the media, and frankly, it’s difficult to ascertain much from it. I spent about an hour with it this morning looking at payroll numbers. I went to the Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/govs/www/apesloc.html, where they have statistics on local government employment. Interestingly, they had Virginia local government employment averages based on 10,000 of population. Some of it was difficult to compare because of the difference between classifications in the city budget and Census Bureau’s numbers. But I did make comparisons of the categories that at least seemed clear, like administration, police, fire fighters, parks and recreation.

I set up an Excel spreadsheet to compare and to calculate percentage variances and I must admit, I went in expecting to find astronomically higher numbers in Suffolk compared to statewide averages (and plenty of fodder for sarcasm), but you know what, I really didn’t. In fact, in some of the ones that you normally hear people complain about the most, Suffolk compared favorably.

For instance, in administration, the 2006 budget proposed by the city manager lists 100 employees. The statewide average in 2005, according to the Census Bureau, was 17.34 administrative employees for every 10,000 of population. Giving Suffolk the benefit of the doubt and assuming 80,000 people, which may be a slight stretch, then Suffolk had only 12.5 employees per 10,000 of population, 28 percent below the statewide average.

Obviously, we need more administrators.

Seriously, I’m not sure what it means. For instance, the Census Bureau didn’t indicate who fell under that category. I assume Suffolk’s department heads are included in the individual departments’ budgets. They could be listed in the Census Bureau’s administrative numbers.

Police, fire and parks and recreation, however, seemed pretty clear cut. Public Works and Public Utilities were ambiguous.

Statewide, there were 23.75 police officers for every 10,000 of local population in 2005. The city manager proposed in 2006 for Suffolk to have 238, 29.75 per 10,000 of population, or 22.59 percent more than the state average. OK, so we should have a safer than average city, I can live with that.

There was a big difference in the number of firefighters, however. The city manager is proposing we have 25.12 firefighters per 10,000 of population compared to just 11.27 per 10,000 statewide, 122.94 percent more. Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, had just 10.25 employees per 10,000 of population proposed compared to 14.65 statewide. The numbers for both include libraries. That’s 30 percent below the state average.

I understand there are likely mitigating factors in all these numbers. The bottom line is, I don’t believe local government in Suffolk is grossly overstaffed, as some might claim, at least in comparison to other local governments in Virginia, or if it is, it’s not by much.

That does not mean that cuts cannot be made. It could be (and is probably damn likely) that all local governments in Virginia are overstaffed and have a lot of fat. Were I on city council and seriously interested in cutting this budget, I’d ask to see objective measures of employee performance in all departments. I don’t even know if these exist, but if they don’t, they need to.

The fact that our city’s population has gone up by five percent this year, or whatever it is, does not necessarily justify increasing the human resources staff by 14 percent as has been proposed by the city manager in the 2006 budget, the commissioner of the revenue’s staff by 18 percent, the finance and administration staff by 8 percent, the finance purchasing staff by 25 percent; the planning department by 12.5 percent and the treasurer’s office by 31 percent.

Prove to me that these folks are as efficient as they can be, that they work as hard as they should and that they are over worked, which in private business managers need to do before they are provided additional staff.

And I’m not talking about just the department head’s word that, “Yeah, they work hard,” but concrete data to prove it.

Maybe they do. I hope so, but don’t know. The only way to know is to set objective goals and measure performance against those goals. I hope that is being done and if it is, council members should look at it.

I’m sure cutting this budget significantly without adversely impacting services could be done. If the budget presented next Wednesday reflects significant cuts in services instead of personnel, it should be sent back for another try.