Needed voices at budget hearing

Published 7:28 pm Tuesday, April 26, 2022

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One of the most underutilized tools in our democratic republic are the public hearings that most states, including Virginia, require when local governments are deciding how to spend taxpayer dollars.

While the turnout wasn’t overwhelming, we were pleased to see some passionate citizens show up for last week’s Suffolk City Council hearing on a proposed city budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

City Manager Al Moor and staff have put together a commendable spending blueprint that presses a lot of right buttons. The $767.6 million budget would cut the real estate tax rate by two cents and reduce the assessment ratio for cars and trucks — both sorely needed provisions in a time when inflated home and vehicle values would sting property owners on their tax bills. Importantly, the budget would fully fund public schools.

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City Council has the final say on the budget, and a few of the speakers at last week’s hearing made points that the mayor and council members should consider.

Jim Grandfield, a lawyer who leads the city’s Public Defender Office, made a compelling case for city funding to supplement state dollars, which are insufficient, he said, to recruit and retain competent counsel.

“All we’re asking is that we be supplemented with city money,” Grandfield said, “much like you’ve been doing and have done for many years for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Why? The pithy answer is basic fairness.

“As a practical matter, you may be sitting here saying, ‘Why, Mr. Public Defender, should we give money to the office’ that, let’s face it, many people define as, ‘you represent criminals.’ Because in this day and age, what we need is a fair, robust and vigorous criminal defense system. We need good prosecutors and we need good public defenders, and candidly, I can’t keep them and I can’t recruit them.”

Speaking of compelling pitches, Bob Hayes made a persuasive case for the Western Tidewater Free Clinic.

Hayes, who is chairman of the clinic’s board, noted rising demand for its services and asked council members to reconsider the draft budget’s call for level funding. A 16% increase, from $185,800 to $214,650, would help cover a 21% increase in the annual cost of patient care. An expansion of dental and mental health services is planned to meet rising demand in both service areas.

Even though we’re pleased with the draft budget’s plan for fully funded schools, we don’t begrudge the citizens who showed up last week to demand accountability by school administrators.

Such voices are healthy and needed if city government, including its schools, is to be accountable to the citizens it serves.