Looking for a real solution

Published 10:50 pm Thursday, April 18, 2013

By Roger Leonard

I have been working out of town for some time now and have not had much opportunity to really keep in touch with all that is going on in Suffolk. I am a senior administrator in Federal Service, managing a state-wide program and several-hundred million dollars a year. However, the fiasco that has become the annual budget process in Suffolk is of great note and concern.

How is it that we have a recurring saga of the city manager building a budget, without much council input? We always hear, “It is the city manager’s budget, until we vote on it.” Then we have this dance where no one talks to anyone else about anything and especially the school’s proposed budget.

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Why is it there are never real and intense talks with our partners in the school administration? Why does the city manager not engage the school administration in real dialog, before people dig in and before compromise is so difficult?

It appears to me to be a significant character flaw in the city manager’s style of leadership — or her utterly failed leadership — that is the cause. Further, the city manager should never be the sole author of the Suffolk budget at any stage of its construction. Open and transparent engagement is needed, but it just does not happen. Is it time for a new city manager?

When I look at the situation of the School Board and the City Council related to the budget, I see a huge disconnect of policy and intent. Schools are funded partially within the city budget and fall under the politics of the School Board, as well as the politics of the City Council and especially the city manager.

Unfortunately, the city manager has been at the front of the political pandering for council since she took the job, and that has impeded making and executing good policy. Another budget fiasco shows things have not changed at all.

Some on the council claim that the School Board’s budget is inflated and ill prepared. They further state that the cost of benefits is inflated and should not be supported, as one example of excessive spending.

Yet the City Council pays all of the benefits for the city manager and some high-level staff, losing the moral high ground in that argument. With a 14-percent raise for the city manager, the council was clearly not prudent with our money in any way.

If you want to know why this seems so hard, just look at the utter failure of the city manager to resolve and execute policy, or even the failure of council to lead in this vital area of public policy and finance.

Public budgets are about setting priorities and defining policy. They do not always have to be about raising taxes. Rather, budgets should always be about defining, declaring and executing public policy. So far in Suffolk, policy is defined in the backroom to serve the connected, it is declared when it is too late for public comment, and it is executed to serve special interest, and the 14-percent raise for the city manager is just one example.

It is time to demand fundamentally better government and in this case, something more from our “smart and well paid” city manager, whose only statement on the school budget was that it was unrealistic.

A smart administrator would attempt to propose a way to meet real needs within real limits.

Roger Leonard is from Suffolk. Email him at rogerflys@aol.com.