People are paying attention

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How important is the city’s budget to Suffolk citizens?

If there were any lingering doubts that taxpayers in Suffolk care about how their money is spent by the City Council, those doubts should have been laid to rest on Monday, when about 150 people showed up at a conference room at the downtown Hilton Garden Inn, where City Council had planned a public input session on the budget, which is set to be released April 3. There were so many people who wanted to be part of the event that organizers had to open a partition to allow an overflow crowd into an adjoining space.

Thirty-eight people spoke to council members to advocate on behalf of various budget-related topics. Some spoke to a desire for schools to be fully funded. Some called for financial support for various nonprofit organizations. Others pleaded for City Council to hold the line on taxes. Some offered suggestions about how to save money in the budget — by postponing some capital improvement projects, by reducing administrative salaries or by cutting departmental spending plans.

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Clearly all of those goals cannot be met, and members of City Council will find themselves struggling once again this year to find a budget solution that balances the long- and short-terms needs of the city and its school system with the desire of many taxpayers to minimize their tax liabilities. That’s one of the hardest jobs of a responsive government, but it’s also one of the most basic duties of those who hold elective office.

Another of the most basic duties is to listen to constituents. Monday’s meeting was a good start in that regard. By giving citizens a chance to share their input on the budget ahead of its release, council theoretically gave Suffolk city administrators a chance to incorporate some of the taxpayers’ suggestions into their proposed spending plan. Council members also now have a feel for what people expect, and they are in a position to amend the spending plan they’re presented if it doesn’t reflect at least some of what was requested on Monday.

If council members are serious about listening to their constituents, they’ll find a way to be responsive to the requests they heard on Monday. If the meeting was so much window dressing, the budget that comes before City Council for a vote May 1 will reflect nothing but the our-way-or-the-highway attitude that so many taxpayers in Suffolk believe characterizes their local government.

One way or the other, Monday’s meeting made it clear that people are paying attention.