Reduce the burden this year

Published 10:43 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When the dust had cleared from the city’s budget deliberations last year, a somewhat amazing convergence of circumstances had taken place: Suffolk was able to fund a $459.72-million budget in the face of a recession with no tax increase, no layoffs and full funding of the school system’s budget request.

There’s a very good chance that the same things will not be true this year. Suffolk Public Schools, for example, has asked for an additional $1.4 million in funding from the city’s taxpayers this year. City employees, who have gone without raises for more than three years, have seen their effective earning power drop during that drought. And assessments — battered by the foundering real estate market — have fallen by 3 percent.

Something all but certainly has got to give. What should not give — at least not in this budget cycle — is the tax rate. There is a strong temptation that’s already evident in the early budget discussions to look at the factors influencing the coming year’s budget and decide that taxpayers must be willing to contribute more to help pay for education, trash pickup, administrative staff and all of the other functions local government takes on for itself.

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City Council members, however, should avoid submitting to that temptation, even though standing firm against tax increases would likely mean cuts in some programs and, perhaps, employee layoffs.

It’s true that a drop in assessments means property owners subjected to the same tax rates as last year would wind up with lower tax bills, therefore providing the city with less money for people and services. But unlike most of those taxpayers, Suffolk’s administration got by with a minimal sacrifice last year. Citizens have good reason to ask that the city’s bureaucracy share in the sacrifice this time.

Will that mean layoffs? Perhaps. Will it require painful belt-tightening and the elimination of unnecessary expenses? Probably. Will it result in a frank discussion about what departments and agencies are extraneous or at least able to absorb moderate cost-cutting measures? Let’s hope so.

Many of Suffolk’s residents, like those from around the nation, are still reeling from the long economic trough they’ve had to slog through for nearly three years. Many economic indicators remain down, and those that are improving are doing so at such a gradual rate that the average person would not notice. If their local government heaps a tax increase on top of all of the rest of the baggage those taxpayers are carrying, it could slow the local economy even more.

There might be a time for arguing in favor of sacrificing our pocketbooks in favor of support for local government programs and employees. Just as the nation is working to pull itself out of the doldrums, however, is not that time. Starting today, council members should approach their budget deliberations with a strong prejudice in favor of reducing, not increasing, the government’s burden on taxpayers.