Watch out for the house of cards

Published 10:43 pm Thursday, February 14, 2013

By Roger Leonard

Within the department that I lead, I teach and practice using forethought and strategic planning in everything we do. I have learned that strategy allows the management of the future, by anticipating outcomes with fact and thought.

Unfortunately this is a lost or extinct art in Suffolk government.

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For perhaps the most telling example of the city’s lack of strategic forethought, one has only to look at how poorly it managed the trash and recycling deal. Once the new pickup fees were instituted, what happened to all the money in the budget that used to pay for trash pickup?

Then there is the utter failure of any strategies related to how the process for re-districting was done. Why was the city manager tasked with leading this most political function? It seemed doomed from the start, and to top it all off, administrators pursued a strategy that concentrated on only one map?

Then we come to the implosion of the Suffolk municipal IT department, under the oversight of the city manager. Why was no strategy employed to resolve known problems? Was there really any understanding of this failure, right under the nose of the city manager, before the consultant provided its explosive condemnation?

As we move on to the next example, we arrive at one that touches us all: the city assessor and the assessment of our homes and property. While I have always had great service from the assessors past and present, this department is also in crisis.

Even though the city manager does not hire or fire the assessor, the operations of that department fall under the city manager’s budget, and one would think that she would have an eye on what is happening. But there appears to be no strategy for that, either.

So we wheel from crisis to crisis.

Now we have a huge crisis with the possible over-assessment of an unknown number of Suffolk properties that could result in some form of litigation or court-ordered, mediated reduction in value, to reflect the real market value of our property and resulting taxes.

As a senior federal manager in real estate, I have found the failure of home prices to fall in Suffolk during the recession to be suspicious, to say the least.

If there are a significant number of over-assessed properties in the Suffolk portfolio, there could be a significant loss of expected revenue flowing into planned city spending in the future. The miracle of financial performance these last few years — which is so often spoken to by our mayor and city council and also underpins the city manager’s supposed performance and recent pay raise — could be an illusion or worse. What strategies might we see employed to resolve this mess — higher tax rates?

These issues clearly show the financial miracle our city manager claims as her legacy in running Suffolk is really a house of cards.

The financial condition of the city has always been based on property taxes as the engine that drives municipal spending and finance. What happens when the City has to drop assessments to real values and discontinue the ingrained practice of over-assessing and overtaxing?

Roger Leonard is from Suffolk. Email him at