City budget: No tax hike, no raises

Published 9:47 pm Wednesday, April 2, 2014

City Council members on Wednesday saw a proposed budget that includes no tax real estate tax increase and no raises for city or school employees.

However, city and school employees would receive 1.5-percent bonuses under the plan, which will cost about $2 million total.

“Of course, I wish we could do more for both our school and city employees,” City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn said. However, she said, there’s not enough money coming in to justify the recurring expense of a raise.

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“I’m glad that we have something to look at to give the teachers,” School Board member Lorraine Skeeter said after the meeting, where she was in attendance.

City Councilman Mike Duman said he was skeptical about the idea of bonuses.

“I believe a one-time bonus is good for one thing, and that’s temporarily placating people in the short term,” Duman said. “But it doesn’t do anything to attract and retain.”

Duman said using the money for bonuses would exacerbate pay compression in the ranks. He said he would rather use the money to implement the second phase of a pay study the city did for its employees.

“I think the teachers need raises,” he said. “I’m not saying the funding has to come from the city. I’ve looked at the school budget for the last two weeks, and I believe there’s money there. I don’t think a bonus is really going to do what needs to be done.”

Cuffee-Glenn said she is working with the school system to conduct a combined pay study for both the city and schools.

Other than the money for bonuses, local funding for the school system would stay level at $50.2 million, about $2.5 million less than the school division requested.

The city’s total budget is about $538.7 million, which includes a substantial amount of state and federal funding and grants. The general fund increased less than $1 million from last year, a bump of about one-half of 1 percent.

Finance Director Lenora Reid said the city was forced to make assumptions about state funding, since the General Assembly has not yet passed its budget. The budget plan assumes level funding from the state, she said. City Council, in its regular session later in the evening, passed a resolution urging the lawmakers to pass a responsible budget as soon as possible.

This would be the third year of a state-mandated 1-percent shift in retirement funding responsibility from the city to employees, which would be offset by a 1-percent pay increase from the city.

The budget is being affected by increased health and risk insurance costs and commitments to capital projects and debt service, Finance Director Lenora Reid said.

It also includes a continued freeze of eight positions, but one position is being added to the assessor’s office because of increased workload, Reid said.

No funding is included for routine technology equipment needs.

The proposed new budget also includes the centralization of police and fire timekeeping and payroll in the finance office. Cuffee-Glenn said it would increase accountability and accuracy, perhaps a response to a recent pay study in the fire department that found errors in overtime and holiday pay.

“I don’t know whose idea that was, but it was a great idea,” Duman said. “I think it will alleviate some of the consternation and concerns we’ve had lately.”

Despite the level real estate tax rate, other fees would change under the proposed spending plan. The monthly trash and recycling fee would decrease $1 to $16.50, but the fees for water and sewer usage would go up about 8 percent. Water and sewer will be billed monthly starting in the August to September time frame, Public Utilities Director Al Moor said. He said the increase is being driven by expansion and regulatory requirements.

Also included in the proposed budget is an increase in the transit fund to add a North Suffolk bus route that would make a loop along Shoulders Hill, Bridge and Townpoint roads, College Drive and other thoroughfares in the northern end. There also would be a separate route connecting the North Suffolk route to the downtown routes and to the Hampton Roads Transit system.

“I believe they’ll be very happy with that,” Public Works Director Eric Nielsen said of the public transit system’s users. He added about the connection to HRT: “I believe that will be a great link.”

A public hearing will be held April 16 at 7 p.m. at city hall, 441 Market St. Adoption of the budget could happen as soon as the May 7 meeting.

The budget is available for viewing online at www.suffolkva.us. In addition, copies are available at city libraries and in several offices at city hall — Media and Community Relations, the city clerk’s office, the city manager’s office and the budget office.

Call 514-4006 or email budgetofficer@suffolkva.us to ask the city questions about the budget.