Don’t spend that surplus

Published 7:05 pm Thursday, September 17, 2009

The news is something just short of shocking in today’s economic climate: In the middle of a recession, Suffolk may have posted a surplus from last year’s budget worth between $3 million and $5 million.

Short of the obvious answer — revenues exceeded expenses — nobody was quite sure how the city managed the feat, or at least they weren’t sharing that information during Wednesday’s meeting. In fact, on Thursday, city officials were emphasizing that they’re not even sure of the final size of the surplus.

It’s tempting to wonder how there can be such a lack of clarity regarding last year’s budget when we’re already nearly through the first quarter of this year’s spending plan. Really, it’s a bit surprising that Suffolk must rely on an auditor to determine its financial position. But that’s the situation, and I’m not fighting that battle today.


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The mystery of the surplus is especially enigmatic, since none of the recession-related cuts that the council adopted during the spring started earlier than July 1. This surplus isn’t a function of tighter cell-phone policy, raising money by charging for bulk-trash disposal or any of the belt-tightening, fee-raising actions that council took during its most recent budget process.

Probably the extra money is just a result of sound fiscal and management practices, but the city might want to bottle and sell that formula, as the number of Virginia municipalities that were able to pull off the same feat last year was vanishingly small, at best.

Setting aside the question of where the money came from, perhaps an even bigger issue on the minds of everyone at City Hall is this: What will we do with that money?

Like a teenager with Friday’s paycheck burning a hole in his pocket, Suffolk’s council members will, no doubt, experience an overwhelming urge to spend every penny. And they will surely be put under distinct pressure to support programs — such as the school system — that found themselves under the budget knife back in May and June.

We can only hope that council members stand strong against that temptation. There’s just too much that remains unknown about where the city will wind up financially as a result of the recession to risk spending all that money. With tax receipts across the commonwealth suffering from atrophy, it would make more sense for Suffolk to sock its surplus away to help balance its budget this year and next.

That said, I applaud Mayor Linda Johnson and other council members, who seem to realize the mistake they made when they set up a cumbersome, frustrating program under which residents with bulk trash must pay in advance to have that trash removed from their properties. The program, as many predicted, has resulted in trash piles lining the city’s roads for weeks at a time.

A small portion of the city’s surplus should go toward making disposal of bulk trash free and easy once again. The rest should be put in the city’s rainy-day fund.