Budget disagreement surfaces

Published 10:28 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2018

More than 15 people spoke during a public hearing regarding the proposed budget at Suffolk’s City Council meeting on Wednesday evening.

Concerns raised included Suffolk Public Schools’ funding increase, the real estate tax increase and the increase in the water and sewer rate.

“We are asking for full funding of the proposed budget, because we feel that in order to be a great city, we need to continue our upward trend in the education system,” said School Board Chairman Enoch Copeland. “Our teachers are underpaid. We feel we need the additional incentive for our teachers, because we are in this competitive area.”

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“You have the opportunity to do the right thing and show those outside the city you are dedicated to Suffolk Public Schools,” said Sidney Neighbours, an eighth-grade teacher at John Yeates Middle School and president of the Education Association of Suffolk. “You have the opportunity to show citizens that you care about the quality of education. With a fully funded budget, you are showing you care about recruitment and retention of quality educators.”

Both Dr. Deran Whitney, superintendent of Suffolk Public Schools, and David Mitnick, School Board member, spoke in favor of supporting a full school budget.

Only one private citizen spoke against the increased real estate tax and the increased water and sewer rate.

Dwayne Sherrick pleaded with the council to stop the water and sewer increases because he has seen increases in 15 of the 26 years that he has resided in Suffolk.

“It is just my wife and I and we have the same routine, but there is a monthly yo-yo of the water bill and I want to know why,” Sherrick said.

Along with the concerns about education and the tax increase, some city departments pleaded with the council for more money.

Suffolk’s Commonwealth Attorney Phil Ferguson asked the city to add another position to his office due to an increase in workload. Four others from his office also spoke in favor of the additional position.

Council members found disagreement on the dais after the public hearing was done.

“I want to see the tax increase cut out,” Councilman Tim Johnson said. “Suffolk is a growing city, and to me, I can’t justify a 4-cent tax increase.”

Johnson also disagreed with a $3,000 raise per teacher and suggested a 2.5-percent raise.

Both councilmen Roger Fawcett and Mike Duman echoed Johnson’s comments. Both disagreed with the raise for the teachers and the 4-cent tax increase.

“I’m concerned about a $3,000 pay raise. City employees are only getting 2.5 percent, and I could live with 2.5 percent. I’m having a problem with the money in that pay raise part,” Fawcett said.

Duman believed that the school system could be more frugal in its spending.

“There is an obligation to be better stewards of our taxpayers’ money, and the school system should take every opportunity to be more frugal and responsible,” Duman said.

Duman presented a motion to have the city manager present a budget at the next meeting that reduces tax increase from 4 cents to no more than 2 cents; reduces the additional school funding from $4 million to $3 million over what was funded last year; and provides funding for one additional assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

“I’m going to vote against the motion because you’re taking money from the schools,” said Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett.

The motion failed on a tied 4-4 vote. Bennett, Mayor Johnson, Curtis Milteer and Lue Ward voted in opposition.

After a break, during which some conversation took place, Fawcett proposed the council would leave the budget in its present form with the exception of providing funding for the additional position in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. That motion passed 6-2, with Tim Johnson and Duman voting in opposition.

The next City Council meeting will be held 7 p.m. May 16, and there will be a public hearing on the tax increase. This will also be the first opportunity to vote on adopting the budget.