Citizens: No tax hike

Published 9:52 pm Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Two dozen Suffolk residents spoke during a public forum on the budget Wednesday night, overwhelmingly arguing against a tax increase in the coming budget year.

Only one speaker — a city employee — favored a tax increase. Other residents suggested service cuts to close the budget gap.

“Set police and fire aside,” suggested Bernard Jernigan. “Everything else is discretionary. Start cutting.”

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Most of the speeches were punctuated by “Amens” and smatterings of applause from the packed benches in Council Chambers.

The city held the budget forum to receive suggestions about what services city residents feel they can do without, and what suggestions they have for raising the money required to pay for city services.

For the first hour of the meeting, city employees painted a dire picture of what could happen if the city doesn’t raise taxes — laying off more than 200 people; closing the animal shelter, a fire station and a library; eliminating summer recreation programs, elder services programs and police gang prevention teams; and more.

A minimum of an 8-cent hike on the real estate tax rate is needed to pay for the bare minimum, budget director Anne Seward said. That’s a 2-cent increase from what a financial advisor told City Council last week, mainly thanks to more decreases in state funding.

The city is in its fourth year of budget reductions, and at the same time has cut about $17.3 million from the general fund since fiscal year 2007. During that time, city employees have been asked to take on more responsibilities, she said. The city also has slashed costs like outside leases, fleet expenses, supplies, marketing, training and more.

Areas to cut are “very limited and possibly exhausted,” Seward said.

But most of the two dozen people who spoke at the forum found areas in the budget they feel the city could do without.

William Harward came forth with a litany of savings suggestions — selling the city-owned Phoenix Bank building, eliminating funding for the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts and discontinuing memberships in the Hampton Roads Partnership, Hampton Roads Planning District Commission and Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance.

Karen Cook suggested that the City Council members do without the stipend they receive for their service, a statement that met with murmurs of agreement from the audience.

“You probably could afford to do this without pay,” she said, noting that several council members own their own businesses.

Cook, a Holland resident, also said she’d be willing to do without trash pickup and would haul her refuse to a central location herself.

David Rawls suggested that city employees should take pay cuts.

“If somebody has to pay for increases in your costs, it should be your employees,” he said.

The lone proponent of raising taxes was Susan Baines, a city employee.

“I want to do my part,” she said. “If the tax rate goes up, I’ll find a way to pay it.”

Toward the end of the meeting, residents began to suggest that the meeting should have been held some other time than on a Wednesday, when many people attend midweek church services, or in a different format that would be less intimidating for people to stand up and give their opinions.

Throughout the entire meeting, the message from taxpayers was clear.

“If you do this, the only thing that will be surprising about Suffolk is the mass exodus,” David Underwood said.

The budget will be revealed on April 6 during the City Council meeting at 441 Market St.