11 speak on proposed budget

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2017

City Council on Wednesday voted to try to find extra money for the school system, but not without expressing reservations about how the money will be spent.

City Manager Patrick Roberts’ proposed budget suggested a $1 million increase in funding for Suffolk Public Schools from last year’s request. However, the school system had requested a $2 million increase.

“I fully support the additional million, and I hope and pray they do the right thing with it,” Councilman Mike Duman said during Wednesday’s meeting.

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Eleven people spoke during Wednesday’s public hearing. Only four spoke about the amount allocated for schools, pleading for more money to keep talented staff in place.

“I think we need to get together and start really looking at what’s important,” said Natalie Rotzler, a Forest Glen Middle School teacher. “We’re pushing the great teachers away.”

Angelo Stone, president of the Suffolk Bus Drivers Association, spoke about the need to pay bus drivers.

“I wish y’all would please look at the budget,” he said. “We’re losing good bus drivers.”

“I’m asking not that you give the additional $1 million, but that you invest the additional $1 million,” said Aaron Burgess, a local pastor. “We are losing valuable staff members. We all want to make Suffolk the standard of Hampton Roads.”

Sid Neighbours, president of the Education Association of Suffolk and a teacher at John Yeates Middle School, said the district is losing teachers.

“Morale isn’t good, and we see an exodus of teachers to other local school divisions,” he said. “Education is the profession that teaches all professions.”

At the end of the public hearing, the council voted 7-1 to instruct the city manager to bring a revised budget that fully funds the school division request while holding the line on taxes.

“Let’s hope it will be used in the proper manner,” Councilman Don Goldberg said of the extra money.

Duman said he watched last month’s School Board meeting and was disturbed that there was no discussion of how the system would cut its budget if the city did not fully fund it.

The lone vote against finding the extra money was Councilman Tim Johnson, who said he did not think extra money would fix the problem.

“This is not the solution,” he said. “Let them fix this problem and figure it out, because they’ve got the resources to do it.”

Reflecting a growing sentiment that the school system isn’t spending its money wisely, the council heard a report earlier in the night about what it can do to provide more oversight of the school system’s finances.

The short answer from City Attorney Helivi Holland, however, was that it can’t do much more than it is already doing. The city can request more information on a more frequent basis, but state code doesn’t give the city authority to do anything if the school system does not oblige.

Other speakers during Wednesday’s public hearing asked for lower water rates and supported funding for the Western Tidewater Free Clinic, the Endependence Center and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeast Virginia.

Overall, the city’s budget totals $601.7 million, which includes the school system’s entire $160.8 million budget. The city budget includes no real estate tax rate increase and a 1.2-percent cost-of-living adjustment for all city employees.

The budget would provide for one new uniformed police officer and also would hire two civilians to do jobs sworn police officers currently are doing, allowing them back on the streets. Three new firefighters also are proposed.

A new appraiser, assistant commonwealth’s attorney and deputy treasurer are proposed, helping to address increased workload in those departments.

The proposed budget includes $68.3 million in capital costs, including $19.3 million for the schools. About 35 percent of the total capital budget for this year comes from non-local sources.

Water and sewer rates will rise this year by about $2.05 per month for the average user. The rate will go up by 17 cents per 100 cubic feet for water and 24 cents per 100 cubic feet for sewer.

The refuse disposal fee will rise $3 per month to $19.50 per month. This increase is needed because the city’s agreement with the Southeastern Public Service Authority runs out in January 2018, and after that, the city will have to start paying tipping fees for trash disposal.