Notes from Suffolk’s Public Hearing on the Budget

I attended the City of Suffolk’s public hearing on the budget last night but had to leave before council members spoke at the conclusion. An overwhelming amount of citizens spoke in support of fully funding the school board’s budget request. Most of those suppoters were connected with the school system and spoke proudly of the acccomplishments of Suffolk public schools and about how difficult it is for teachers, administrators and staff to work with relatively low funding levels provided to the schoolboard by the city. Wendell Foster of the Education Association of Suffolk said other regional cities provide more school funding as a percentage of their budget than Suffolk does, with another speaker saying “Dead Last” while another acknowledge that Suffolk did “beat Newport News”.

Few who came to defend the schoolboard’s funding directly addressed Mayor Linda Johnson’s assertion that we must either cut services or raise taxes. In fact, only a few citizens did respond to the mayor’s options, and most chose a third: cut abuse and mismanagement. Elliot Joyner had a list of eight suggestions, aimed at cutting “out of control spending”. This included cutting the amount of vehicles and driving, both of which he said was excessive. He also suggested cutting Parks and Recreation and Public Works in half. Other speakers also spoke to abuses and attacked the mayor and city manager over their high salaries. Chris Dove said the council is “reaping what [they] sowed” by breaking zoning laws, allowing an increase in population accompanying a decrease in property values, resulting in the shortfall which was the primary concern for the meeting.

A few speakers did express a willingness to endure tax increases in support of the schoolboard and other spending, including a businessman who said he has been successful and the city already has “plenty of” his money. At least two speakers defended the city manager and mayor and praised them for the city’s growth and for keeping Lipton Tea in Suffolk.

Even those who attacked the city council over spending cited other areas, not the schoolboard, to cut funding.

A few speakers spoke to specific issues. Marion Flood, who defended the schoolboard, decried the loss of Robertson Elementary and, in general, the lack of spending in Whaleyville. “What does Whaleyville get?”, she asked, and called for a computer lab in the Whaleyville recreation center to assist in after-school education. Two speakers complained about excessive development and loss of services in Pughsville, one saying the streets are so blocked by cars that an ambulance would have difficulty gaining access to the area. Linda Bunch of Suffolk Art Leage said investment in arts is an investment which provides a return of at least three times over. Karen Joyner of the Foodbank Of Southeastern Virginia defended spending on human services.

The Suffolk News Herald quickly posted a summary of the hearing. As Tracy Agnew reports, the mayor and councilmembers spoke at the end of the meeting and addressed the overwhelming amount of requests to fully support the schoolboard and other spending, but the very small amount of concrete suggestions on how to do so.

Councilman Charles Parr said he had not heard the specific suggestions he had hoped to hear, with a few exceptions.

“It’s ringing in my ears — education, no tax raise, education, no tax raise,” he said, adding later: “I’ve heard, I want this, I want that, I want this, but don’t raise taxes.”

I received an email from Arthur Singleton, who was at the meeting with me and stayed until the end, saying, “You missed the best part of the meeting”. According to Mr. Singleton, council members pointed out how the financial status of the city has improved under the leadership of our city manager, and that her pay hike was a promise made to her when she was hired at a low salary, with the challenge to improve the moody rating of the city. Council also pointed out that the emergency response bus was a federal grant, and that it was not paid for with city tax dollars.

Updates, Mar 20th: I added Art Singleton’s comments.

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