Council sees $532M budget

Published 10:43 pm Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Suffolk’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes a 6-cent tax hike, new fees for garbage collection, higher water and sewer rates, lower funding for the school system and the elimination of HRT bus service in Suffolk.

The $532.89 million plan also includes no raise for city employees — though none will be furloughed or laid off, a fate that many municipal employees around the country are facing.

City Council members called the proposal a responsible and forward-moving plan that protects the city’s vital services, complies with state and federal mandates and keeps the city in line with its financial policies.

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The proposal also brings back a citywide recycling program, which currently is offered through an outside company only to those who sign up and pay $12 a month. Payment for recycling now will be included in a flat $18.50 per-household monthly fee that also encompasses regular and bulk refuse.

The proposal for a tax increase bucks the wishes of nearly two dozen residents who spoke at a public forum last month. City leaders said an increase is necessary to close an $11.9 million gap that results from increased costs for things like risk insurance, debt service and the Western Tidewater Regional Jail.

The proposal closes the gap by continuing a freeze on non-essential positions and employee benefits, slashing equipment replacements, eliminating the HRT service and providing the school system with $900,000 less than last year.

The tax increase likely will be the most painful part for most people, the council members acknowledged.

“Probably nobody anywhere is going to like it,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said.

The new refuse collection fees are in preparation for the eventual demise of the Southeastern Public Service Authority landfill’s useful life. Recent SPSA discussions have included selling or closing the landfill. Suffolk would have to approve a sale, but either instance would be the end of Suffolk’s free disposal.

“Suffolk must decide what disposal option to choose, and we really need to choose our own destiny,” Public Works director Eric Nielsen said.

The budget plan also includes reduced funding to the school system of about $900,000, which equals about $2.3 million less than the schools requested. It’s not yet clear how the school system plans to close the gap.

The proposed elimination of the HRT service could be replaced by a smaller-scale, more efficient option, city leaders said. One consideration is the I-Ride service currently provided in neighboring counties. Elimination of the service didn’t sit well with speakers at the meeting.

“It would be very inappropriate to cut this vital link with the city and the rest of the Hampton Roads area,” said Wayne Williams, one of six who came to Council’s regular meeting Wednesday to protest proposed cuts on the HRT routes. “I have found it to be a very vital and indispensable service.”

With dozens of city employees sitting in the audience, budget director Anne Seward told the City Council that no raises are proposed in the budget, even though a consultant’s report recently found that compensation of city staff falls behind the rest of the region by about 9 percent.

“We do hope we’ll be able to provide for our valued employees in the future,” she said.

The entire budget document is available for viewing on the city’s website at; in city hall at the offices of the city clerk, city manager and budget director; and in city libraries.

A public information meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 14. A formal public hearing is set for April 20 at 7 p.m. Both will be held in City Council chambers, 441 Market St.

Council’s first opportunity to adopt the budget will be May 4.