Council unanimously adopts $767.6 million fiscal 2023 budget, fully funds school division

Published 9:06 pm Thursday, May 5, 2022

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May the fourth was with Suffolk Public Schools, city employees and myriad others as City Council unanimously approved the $767.6 million fiscal 2023 budget Wednesday. 

Despite some criticism that the school division has not been transparent with its spending — a charge it disputes — council agreed to give its full request of $67.3 million, a $2 million increase from the current budget. Members of the school division’s administrative team, including Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, were in attendance. 

School division budget discussed

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Councilman Tim Johnson said he had intended to talk about school funding and why the division needed an extra $2 million, but also praised its budget for looking out for its teachers, staff and facilities. He noted controversy in parts of the school division, but ultimately changed course and agreed to its funding request. 

“I think that we, as a council, have to put a lot more trust in our school system,” Johnson said, “and a lot more trust in that they’re asking for this money for legitimate reasons. … The only way we’re going to move forward in our school system is for our whole city to be involved, and for this council to be really involved with it.”

Johnson said he has spoken to Gordon about making the school division’s budget clearer for people to understand, and to have more open communication with all parties. 

“I would like to see in the future, though, that when we go to put forth budgets … that we talk more and we all put it together more so that the people understand,” Johnson said. “And I hope that as we all move forward into the future that we are all a little bit more discerning about what we say and how we use the money.”

He said everyone needs to recognize the need for the school division to be the best in the state, “and it’s not right now. I’m sorry, it’s just not, but it can be. And we want to make sure that we’ve given this School Board every discretion to make that happen. So if $2 million is all it takes, that’s not a heck of a whole lot. We’re going to spend more than that because we’ve got lots and lots to move forward with.”

Mayor Mike Duman said he also had some hesitance about the school division’s budget, but ultimately came to the same conclusion as Johnson. He said he supports the school division, but also wholeheartedly supports taxpayers. 

“I, too, was considering making a change in the budget in regards to school funding and the additional $2 million over and above what was provided last year — $65 million last year, $67 million and some change this year,” Duman said. “As members of council, we have an obligation to be vigilant stewards of the taxpayers’ money, and this has nothing to do with the school system.”

He expressed concerns with some parts of the school division’s budget that he felt don’t directly deal with education. 

The school division’s budget still depends on what the General Assembly ends up doing with the state budget, and in particular, with the grocery tax. The division’s overall $232.5 million budget includes pay raises for staff and adds 28 new positions. 

Step increases, new positions and CIP funded

The budget also has $8.4 million in money for step increases that come following the city’s compensation study. It would also fully fund the $59.3 million in projects in the first year of the city’s capital improvement program and plan, including $7.5 million in capital funding to replace John F. Kennedy Middle School and $3.575 million in capital funding for major systems repairs and replacements. The city has budgeted $11.2 million for the schools’ debt service. 

The budget provides for 52 new full-time positions, including 18 for Suffolk Fire & Rescue to staff its new College Drive fire station and a new full-time fire inspector that converts two part-time positions into one full-time one. It also includes $1.8 million in additional overtime money for the department. 

Among other items budgeted in the CIP’s first year are $4.1 million for the College Drive fire station, around $2.3 million for new and replacement fire apparatus, just over $400,000 for ambulances and $100,000 for a breathing air system. The budget also includes $9.8 million for the traffic operations center, citywide signal timing and the Freeman Mill Bridge over the Spivey Swamp. 

Another $6.5 million in CIP money has been set aside for renovating the Human Resources building, $3.6 million to work on a new central library, $2.9 million for local urban road construction and nearly $1.8 million for the flyover project on Nansemond Parkway and Wilroy Road. 

In that first year, $44 million of the $59.3 million will come from the general government fund, about $9.3 million from the public utilities fund, nearly $5.5 million from the stormwater fund and $500,000 from the information technology fund. Parks and Recreation projects will receive $710,000. 

The city has proposed issuing $29.9 million in general obligation bonds in the first year, and is expected to issue at least $29.5 million in bonds over the next four years. 

The city’s general fund is projected to increase by $25.2 million in the next fiscal year. 

“The absolute best part about this budget is there’s so much money flying around,” Duman said. “There’s so much money that’s been received. The money is there to compensate our teachers, to compensate our staff and do what we need to do.”

Some tax rates adjusted, others left alone

Still, several speakers during Wednesday’s public hearing on an effective 7.71% citywide effective property tax increase called for the city to further reduce the real estate tax rate. 

The adopted rate of $1.09 per $100 of assessed value, which goes into effect with the start of the new fiscal year July 1, is two cents lower than the current rate. 

“Is that enough?” Duman said, sighing. “We went in the right direction.”

That rate is the third-lowest in the region behind Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. 

However, the total assessed value of real property, not counting additional assessments due to new construction or property improvements, is 10.81% higher than last year. 

The budget, Duman said, “has brought a year of substantial economic growth, new real estate development, appreciating values of current real estate, all contributing to a significant, significant increase in revenue. And after reviewing the budget … I’m pleased with the allocation of those additional revenues.”

The adopted budget keeps some taxes and fees the same — absorbing an increase in tipping fees at the regional landfill and keeping the refuse fee at $25.25 monthly while leaving the stormwater fee at $7.50 per equivalent residential unit. 

Cars and trucks under two tons will be assessed at 75% of their value instead of the current 100% due to the more than 40% increase in their assessed value. 

It also would hold the line on some taxes and fees — absorbing an increase in tipping fees at the regional landfill and maintaining the refuse fee at $25.25 monthly, and leaving the stormwater fee at $7.50 per equivalent residential unit.

The city budget does, however, include a 12-cent increase in the water rate — from $10.31 to $10.43 per cubic feet — and a 50-cent increase in the meter service rate, which City Manager Al Moor has said would equate to a $1.10 average increase per month, from $100.65 to $101.75. The sewer rate, at $7.27 per cubic foot, will stay the same unchanged. That does not include any charges from the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

Budget amendments

As part of her motion to adopt the budget, Councilwoman Shelley Butler-Barlow introduced amendments to the budget that added $145,500 for the General District Court behavioral health docket — it had not been proposed to receive any funding — and $28,850 for the Western Tidewater Free Clinic to provide it with the same funding it currently has ($214,650). In turn, Butler-Barlow’s amendment cut $69,066 from the general fund non-departmental leave compensation, from $1 million to $930,934, and $2,884 from the leave compensation — FICA, from $76,500 to $73,616. They were approved as part of the vote to adopt the full budget. 

The budget, however, did not add any money to the public defender’s office, a point Duman noted as he directly addressed Jim Grandfield, a lawyer who leads the city’s Public Defender’s Office and was at Wednesday’s meeting. He addressed the council previously at a public hearing on the budget, asking for $200,000.

“It was a consideration in tonight’s budget,” Duman said, “but there was an issue, a technical glitch, with state code and how money can actually go that way. It’s not as easy as it looks, so I just want to let you know we’re thinking about you. It’s a good cause.” 

Councilman Roger Fawcett said the city’s strong financial posture has allowed it to do what it has done with the budget. 

“This has been about the best budget I’ve had so far,” Fawcett said. “We’ve gone back and forth over the years, believe me, but this has turned out to be a very good budget this year. We’re fortunate that we’ve had the funding to do some of the things we’re doing, even coming through a pandemic.”