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City adjusts budget to lower water rate increase

Responding to council requests to ease water and sewer rate increases and an expressed need by the Sheriff’s Office to handle an increased workload, the city has lowered the average rate increases by 70 cents and added a sheriff’s deputy position to the proposed budget.

The Sheriff’s Office, along with Suffolk Mayor Mike Duman and Councilman Roger Fawcett, had asked for Interim City Manager Al Moor to look for money to add a deputy, and Duman and Fawcett also asked Moor to look at the water and sewer rates to determine if the burden on residents could be reduced.

Moor and Finance Director Tealen Hansen, in outlining the proposed $698 million fiscal 2022 budget prior to the start of a public hearing at the May 6 City Council meeting, did not propose any additional changes.

The original proposed budget called for an average monthly water and sewer rate increase of $5.20 per month, or 5.4%. Hansen, however, said that after consulting with Raftelis, the city’s rate consultant, staff has found possible adjustments in revenue and expenses that would lower the average increase to $4.50 per month, or 4.7%. It also keeps the city in compliance with its financial policies, Hansen said, as it relates to the utility fund and its debt covenant.

The revised budget increases the Sheriff’s Department budget by $60,535 to pay for a Deputy Sheriff II position — $44,488 in salary and wages, $9,547 in fringe benefits, $6,000 in uniforms and $500 in travel and training. Hansen said the department’s budget was increased largely by reducing the amount spent on overtime for Suffolk Fire & Rescue — $56,233 — and cutting $4,302 in its fringe benefits.

“Due to the nature of how the fire department works, they usually have salary savings,” Hansen said, “so the $60,000 is not going to make a significant issue to the fire department salary line items as it relates to the overtime.”

City employee salaries discussed

Councilman LeOtis Williams asked about the step plan for public safety staff, which was a framework prepared last year to address public safety salaries, which Moor said was based on three-to-four-year-old old data that has since changed as other localities have adjusted their pay scales. Multiple council members said it was time to move forward on it.

“This is unsatisfactory,” Fawcett said. “We have to get to the end result. You can’t keep telling these employees that have been sitting out there for three years waiting for this to come forward … but I am tired of hearing about studies. I’m tired of hearing about it and nothing getting done.”

Moor said he wants to work with the city’s Human Resources staff to ensure that data it puts into it is competitive with the rest of the Hampton Roads region and have something ready for council in the next six months.

“What we want to do is bring you a plan,” Moor said, “and should council adopt the step plan in the future, I want to make sure that you have the best data that supports each step.”

In comments during the public hearing, Pam King, a 35-year veteran of the city’s Fire Marshal’s office and president of the Suffolk Professional Firefighters, had asked the city to reconsider and move forward with the public safety step plan, noting that the city should no longer be perceived as a training ground for staff to take jobs elsewhere for higher salaries. She said it showed the city was 3% to 9% behind in pay compared to nearby cities.

Duman said he had spoken with Moor several months ago about the step plan and what it would take to put one in place “that we could live with for a while.”

“I don’t think anybody’s dragging their feet,” Duman said. “It does need to be done.”

School division funding request intact

They left intact the $196.3 million budget request from the school division — $65.3 million of which would come from the city — that the School Board previously adopted despite persistent calls from some over the past several months that its budget lacks transparency and accountability. Critics of the division’s budget have said it does not adequately show how money is being spent and that it should be presented in a line-item format.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, the division’s chief financial officer Wendy Forsman and board chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck have countered that it is, and has been, transparent with how it is spending and proposing to spend money, citing repeated clean audits. Forsman has also said certain items cannot be broken down to the school or classroom level because there is overlap in them with other schools or classrooms.

Duman said he has asked the board to do two things: recognize residents’ concerns and acknowledge them, and “provide some type of additional information, even if it does not fully satisfy what is being requested.” He said his attempts “have been futile.”

He noted the calls to “step up” and withhold funding to the school division. However, he is not currently willing to do that, and said the council has an opportunity to fully fund the board’s request and guarantee that all of the division’s staff “are compensated as budgeted,” even if it disagrees with how it is spending the money.

“Personally, I do not believe that this time, that that is a prudent approach,” Duman said. “We cannot determine or direct who will be affected by a reduction in funding. It may send a message, but it could also be to the detriment of our students, teachers or support staff.”

Duman said he would continue to advocate for “additional transparency, cooperation and fiscal responsibility.

The board’s actions this year, he said, would determine what the council actions are next year.