Council edits capital plan

Published 10:11 pm Thursday, February 16, 2017

The City Council, after a lengthy discussion about the merits of various projects, narrowly voted on Wednesday to send the capital improvements plan back to city staff with suggested edits.

Council members balked at a proposed firing range for Suffolk law enforcement officers and voted to direct staff to bring back a new plan that pushes funding for the range back a year.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the firing range would be a huge asset,” said Councilman Mike Duman, who made the motion pushing back the range. But, he added, “I believe that we have not investigated all the options we have.”

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Suffolk Police Chief Thomas Bennett said earlier this month that the Walters-area range where the department’s officers currently practice is being affected by encroachment and is likely to close within the next few years. Other options are not feasible because of cost, distance, liability issues and more, he said.

The $6.5-million indoor range, proposed to be located on property the city already owns in a rural area south of downtown, would allow about 400 law enforcement officers from the Suffolk Police Department, Suffolk Sheriff’s Office, Western Tidewater Regional Jail and Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue to practice shooting in a variety of situations.

“We believe it will better serve the city over a period of 20 to 25 years,” Bennett said at the Feb. 1 City Council work session.

But council members were not convinced. Several of them noted the annual cost of operating the facility once it’s built would be about $180,000.

“It certainly would be something the police department probably does need,” Councilman Tim Johnson said this week. “I personally would like to see us move it back a bit.”

Councilman Roger Fawcett, however, spoke up in favor of the shooting range.

“This is an investment you’re going to make for your law enforcement personnel,” he said. “I want to give my police officers every advantage.”

Mayor Linda T. Johnson also supported the firing range, saying consolidating with other cities wouldn’t go well with more than 400 law enforcement officers from Suffolk needing to use the facility.

“I think we need a firing range,” she said. “I don’t know how we can ask somebody else to do that for us.”
Council members also scrutinized other projects, including a proposed $4 million for an operations facility for Suffolk Public Schools, but ultimately didn’t direct staff to change them. The operations facility would ultimately cost $10.3 million and serve as the base for textbook and records storage, print shop, food services and more.

Council members also didn’t feel like they had enough information on that project.

“I don’t like spending $4 million if I don’t know what it’s going to do,” Councilman Johnson said.

In all, the plan before edits includes $333 million in projects in the first five years, with about $62 million in the first year.

The capital improvements plan is reviewed and updated every year and outlines the city’s expected capital needs in the next 10 years and how it expects to pay for them. The first year of the plan is presented as part of the upcoming budget proposal for fiscal year 2017-2018.

A large contingent from local civic leagues was in the audience to show support for village and neighborhood improvements, which are a relatively small part of the capital improvements plan.

The residents, however, want to see more money and a plan dedicated to such things as removing ditches and installing curbs and gutters in neighborhoods like Hollywood and Jericho.

“We pay taxes like everybody else,” Rose Blizzard, a Hollywood-Jericho Civic League member, said earlier this month. “But we look like we’re still in the dumps. It’s time for the city to treat us the same as everybody else is getting.”

Ross Boone spoke on behalf of all of the civic leagues during Wednesday’s meeting, becoming the only speaker during the public hearing. He called the $1.7 million set aside in this year’s capital improvements plan “insufficient.”

“You can do something about it if you change the way you fund those initiatives,” he said. “We must do better for those communities. I ask you, I beg you, to reconsider the $1.7 million. Our communities deserve more. I know you can do it.”

He presented photos of some of the problems and a plan he said the civic leagues have agreed upon.

If the City Council dedicates $3 million to $5 million per year for the next five years, Boone said, he believes all of the projects could be complete.

The plan includes completing neighborhoods that have been started — Saratoga, Kingsboro and South Suffolk/Pleasant Hill among them — in the first year. The second year would go to the second half of Rosemont — part of that neighborhood also has already been done, he said.

The third year would go to Lloyd Place, Jericho and Hollywood.

“And by the end of the fifth year, you look around and say, ‘Who did we miss,’” Boone said. “That way, you cut out the bickering; you cut out the arguing; you cut out the quid pro quo.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Councilman Curtis Milteer said the plan was not based in reality, suggesting that council members would not vote for a plan that doesn’t include money for their borough.

“No one will approve anything unless they’re included,” he said. “That’s the way the political arena works.”

He added later: “No council member is going to support a plan that takes money from their area and carries it to another area.”

Boone said on Thursday that he was disappointed but hopes his speech and information provided makes an impact.

“Hopefully, it did not all fall on deaf ears,” Boone said. “These neighborhoods are long overdue on getting some return on their investment. We’ll keep churning at it and keep working at it.”

Wednesday’s motion to edit the plan came from Councilman Mike Duman, who suggested pushing the funding for the firing range back a year and changing a proposed canoe/kayak launch on the Nansemond River to read “water access,” potentially allowing for a boat ramp in the future.

The motion passed on a 5-3 vote, with Fawcett, Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett and Mayor Johnson voting in opposition.