Not sitting quietly during tax discussion

Published 9:26 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I read in the Norfolk newspaper on Tuesday that, according to a group of unnamed City Council members, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn is set to introduce a 2011-2012 budget that calls for a six-cent real estate tax increase and the imposition of a fee of $10 a week for trash pickup.

I must confess that I’m a bit surprised by the anonymity. Not that the newspaper granted it — it’s not uncommon for journalists to do so in pursuit of an important story — but that the council members would feel a need to hide behind a cloak of secrecy in order to release information that already was expected and that would be publicly disseminated within a day or so, anyway. One wonders what they were trying to protect.

The truth is that it’s risky for me to be writing about the budget at all on this page. The last couple of times I’ve done so, I’ve learned that council members have pretty thin skin when it comes to that type of criticism.

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Last month, in fact, an editorial calling for restraint on the urge to raise taxes got them so worked up that they spent portions of both a work session and a regular meeting railing publicly against the “local newspaper.” I just wish they’d named the Suffolk News-Herald. After all, it’s not often that we get television time, and we could have benefited from the free advertising.

Other responses from City Council when I’ve written editorials suggesting fiscal restraint and reminding members of their responsibility to taxpayers have been less public, but they still were clearly intended as payback.

For public consumption, council members continue to crow about cutting $17 million in expenses during the past five years. Considering that claim, we still await an explanation — in public or private — of how the budget actually grew by $11 million during that period, outpacing the rate of inflation. On that topic, only the crickets respond.

Today at 4 p.m., council members are set to hear the city manager’s budget proposal. If what we’ve read is correct, they will be asked to cover a budget gap that, coincidentally, equals $11.4 million.

The Associated Press reported recently that American private-sector productivity doubled from 2008 to 2009 and then doubled again by 2010. People learned to work faster, harder and more efficiently as their companies laid off their co-workers. But taxpayers are supposed to believe that local government, which Suffolk’s Department of Economic Development ranks as the city’s fifth-largest employer, can’t possibly be more efficient or more productive.

Judging from their attitudes during recent budget discussions — not to mention their responses to past budget-related editorials on this page — it seems clear that Suffolk’s City Council members already have made up their minds to raise taxes, even as their constituents suffer through job losses, home foreclosures and falling wealth.

By now, though, they should know that not everyone will just sit quietly and wait for them to start sending the bills.