Time to say no

Published 10:07 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2012

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn’s proposed 2012-2013 city budget is a study in poor public relations and bad judgment. The budget would give the city’s public schools just $3 million of the $7 million in extra local funds they had sought, meaning the School Board could resort to layoffs and furloughs in order to balance its budget, and Suffolk teachers are likely to go a sixth year without raises.

Cuffee-Glenn easily could have argued that the economy was just too weak to justify giving the school system the money that would have been needed to fully fund its requested budget. Instead, she proposes to increase the salaries of 800 non-school city employees.

That’s nice for the city employees. And it’s especially nice for Cuffee-Glenn and some of those at the top levels of her administration. The city manager’s salary would rise 21 percent, to $183,492, under her proposed budget. City Attorney Helivi Holland, who was hired in February, would get an increase of almost 34 percent, to $169,877. Another recent appointee, assessor Jean Jackson, would get a 23-percent bump, putting her new salary at $110,500.

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Administrators and some council members point to the recommendations from a recent compensation study that showed senior management positions in Suffolk trailing well behind those in the cities used for comparison. The flaw in the study was obvious from the start, but city officials continued with it, anyway. Instead of comparing Suffolk to cities of similar population or geography, officials compared Suffolk to the rest of South Hampton Roads and to the bedroom communities of Northern Virginia and Richmond. And judging based on that flawed methodology, it was determined that Suffolk officials were severely underpaid.

Many Suffolk taxpayers would have been willing to concede that firefighters and police officers — maybe even trash and street-repair crews — were underpaid and deserved an increase. All of those folks have suffered along with the rest of us through the long recession and slow recovery.

Where the public relations train ran off the rails, though, was in the recommendations for huge increases for Cuffee-Glenn and other top officials in her administration. Most folks have a hard time reconciling Cuffee-Glenn’s already-high salary with the purported need for a 21-percent increase. And stacked up against the fact that Suffolk teachers have gone nearly six years without a raise, the city manager’s increase seems tone-deaf at best, greedy at worst.

The push for salaries that line up with communities that have little in common with Suffolk began with Cuffee-Glenn. She has controlled the process from the beginning and through its fruition with a budget that recommends she get a pay raise larger than Suffolk’s per capita income.

It’s time for members of the City Council to move to take control of the budget process. It’s time for them to show the city’s teachers that their leaders will suffer along with them until the economy improves. It’s time for them to say no to the city manager.