One thing right on budget

Published 10:10 pm Saturday, May 5, 2018

City Manager Patrick Roberts made a bold move last month when his proposed budget included a 4-cent increase to the real estate tax rate in order to provide full funding of Suffolk Public Schools’ budget request and a raise for city employees, among other additional needs that have cropped up this year.

For a month, City Council members allowed their thoughts about the proposed budget to fester. They didn’t speak about it much — very few of them even returned phone calls from a News-Herald reporter — and when they did say anything about what they thought, their words were deliberately vague and obscure.

The disagreement surfaced on Wednesday night, with none of them happy about the tax increase but very little consensus on where expenses should be slashed or if revenues might go up enough to cover any of the shortfall if taxes were not increased.

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They talked about it for the better part of three hours. They took a break and talked some more without their microphones in their faces, and the world will never know what was said. They came back with a vote that provided the most unanimity that seemed possible — two still voted against it — and then moved on with the rest of their docket.

That final vote kept the budget intact except for providing funding for an extra prosecutor in the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney C. Phillips “Phil” Ferguson. And that may have been the most sensible thing the council did all night.

Ferguson had his employees out in force during the public hearing. While careful to indicate they support the police body-camera program started a few years ago, they outlined how it has increased the hours needed to prosecute most cases, as they have to watch videos from each officer that was on the scene. One top prosecutor who handles the most sensitive cases, sex crimes and child abuse, shared details of her seven-day-a-week schedule forced upon her by the workload.

The prosecutors noted how additional funding has been provided for police officers and firefighters over the years because of increased calls, but the end of the line for a lot of those calls — the prosecutor’s office — hasn’t increased in positions at such a rate.

The lawyers even raised the specter of having to drop other duties they are not legally required to do, which could include leaving police officers to handle DUI cases rather than having a lawyer prosecute them.

In the end, the council members were convinced by a group of folks who have more experience arguing at a podium than anybody else in the room. Whatever else may have happened in the budget, providing the additional money for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office was a good move. We hope it survives the rest of the process intact.