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City Council needs to get its priorities#8217; straight Staff 08/03/2006 Suffolk City Council members and top city staff, I assume, will be sitting down on Wednesday to sift through the city manager#8

Suffolk City Council members and top city staff, I assume, will be sitting down on Wednesday to sift through the city manager’s proposed budget, ostensibly looking for something to cut.

The meeting came out of last week’s council meeting when, after a lengthy public hearing on the tax rate/budget, council members debated the merits of proposed cuts.

It’s likely in the wake of last week’s elections that at least a few cents will be shaved off the manager’s proposal, but the incumbents who were defeated made it pretty clear that they and Councilman Brown are going to be opposed to significant reductions.

I’ve been watching this process of creating a budget for five or six years now and I think I’m starting to get a handle on it. It begins each year, not in the early spring, but in the fall, not long after it was adopted, with the council’s annual retreat.

That’s when council sets its priorities, which can be found at http://www.city.suffolk.va.-us/council/docs/05CouncilPriorities&ActionPlan.pdf. They are the same every year and include: Education (cha-ching); Downtown and Neighborhood Development (cha-ching); Economic Development and Tourism (cha-ching); Smart Growth, and Quality of Life (cha-ching).

Shortly after the retreat, these priorities are printed up on slick, color, glossy paper, alongside photographs of the council members, and mailed to every house in town. They are also trumpeted at every opportunity where a city official is speaking in public.

The idea of a retreat each year and setting priorities is a good concept for any organization. It gives employees an idea of what is expected of them and how they should allocate tax dollars, etc.

While in theory that’s how it’s supposed to work, after some time watching this process I can’t help but notice side benefits to this process for those who want to keep taxes and spending high so their friends and supporters can continue to feed at the public trough. Here’s how:

Every spring after taxpayers receive their assessment notices, council members start to hear angry complaints about high real estate taxes. As good representatives, they bring these concerns to the table at council meetings, that’s when city staff plays its favorite trump card.

“Don’t forget your priorities. This is what you told us you wanted and in order to do that, we need X amount of money. You don’t want to go back on your word, do you?”

The poor council members never have any reply to this. If they choose to fight for the tax rate reduction, they could wind up looking weak, wishy-washy and hypocritical. As a result, we end up with things like the 2-cent rate reduction last year and the proposed 7-cent reduction this year.

Here’s a thought: If our city council members are serious about reducing the tax burden on the citizenry — and judging by the results of last week’s election, they better be if they want to keep their jobs — how about making that and fiscal responsibility in general a priority at your next retreat, or better yet, take a vote at your next meeting to change your priorities. I promise you, the bulk of Suffolk residents will not think any less of you if you do.

And speaking of the priorities, why do all of them have to have huge price tags attached to them? Education as a priority translates to $50 million school buildings and soaring teacher and administrator pay raises; Downtown and Neighborhood Development translate to costly initiatives to fund cultural arts centers, create new roads so traffic can get to them and building parking structures; Quality of Life and economic development and tourism translate to things like building hotels, golf courses, renovating old courthouses, buying and developing real estate, building boat ramps and $45 million athletic complexes, with equestrian centers, no less.

These are all nice things, to be sure, and worthy goals, if you can afford them. A city’s goals should be lofty, but also need to be grounded in reality, balanced with the economic reality facing families. What’s more, quality of life improvements for Suffolk residents don’t all have to come with multi-million dollar price tags attached to them.

Here’s a few priorities for you that won’t cost the taxpayers anything: Fiscal responsibility; reducing the tax burden on the residents; better customer service; eliminating the influence of special interests on policy decisions (Don’t laugh, I’m serious); and creating and maintaining an honest, open, fair government that’s accountable to the citizens.

I think most residents of Suffolk would be OK with priorities like that n and they wouldn’t cost us a dime.

Prutsok is publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611 or at andy.prutsok@suffolknewsherald.com.