Tight budget, city says

Published 10:14 pm Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In their last work session before a proposed budget is finalized, Suffolk City Council members made their priorities clear during a two-hour meeting Wednesday.

“To some individuals, everything is essential,” said Councilman Charles Parr, stressing that he wants the city’s core services covered. “None of us want the prisoners coming out.”

The preliminary budget gap equals roughly $7 million, which reflects funding cuts from the state, $2 million worth of real estate assessments, and increased service demands.

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Anne Seward, the city’s budget officer, said she hopes to know by next week exactly what the state reductions will be.

“Each year, we’ve been seeing the numbers slowly whittle away,” Seward said of the state aid. Reductions include $2 million to public schools, $38,000 in public safety, $27,750 in library funding and $12,000 in Voter Registrar funding.

Increased financial responsibilities include the King’s Fork Public Safety Center, additional police officers and dispatchers needed for public safety, increased local costs at the Western Tidewater Regional Jail, technology upgrades and other needed funds, according to Seward.

Fire Chief Mark Outlaw and Police Chief Thomas Bennett asked for additional firefighters and police officers, as well as replacements for old emergency response vehicles.

“The police fleet is getting a little long in the tooth,” Bennett said. Twelve vehicles in the police department’s fleet have more than 130,000 miles, which is a maximum recommendation for mileage, Bennett said.

On the fire department side, Outlaw stressed the need for additional vehicles, noting that some fire trucks are approaching 20 years of use on the front lines. Under ideal conditions, a fire vehicle would be used only 10 years on the front lines and 10 years as a backup.

Technology concerns also permeated the discussion. Most computers in the city operate on a 15-year-old system, said Clifford Branch, the city’s technology coordinator. The demands of the city have exploded in the past 15 years, leading to a system that has trouble keeping up with the business of the city. The city’s phone system also needs an overhaul, Branch said, and a leaky ceiling in the room that houses the city’s servers needs to be repaired.

The Suffolk Public Schools budget was not discussed at length because city leaders have not yet received a proposed budget from the schools.

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn said that measures similar to those taken last year will be implemented again to help save money.

“There’s nothing really new under the sun,” Cuffee-Glenn said. “It’s just how you implement it going forward.”

Measures taken last year included reduced books, dues and subscriptions, reduced travel and training, elimination of leased space and a freeze on non-essential vacant positions. The city also reduced its employee benefits, including tuition reimbursement, on-call pay, non-essential uniforms, out-of-city take-home vehicles and an employee service award program.