VA State Legislators Tell City Council to Get in Line

“If you want to have the state involved … there’s a lot of projects that are in front of it,” Delegate Chris Jones R-76 said. “You have to get in line, and it has to be a priority.”

via Legislators discuss library | The Suffolk News-Herald.

Last year, I worked with the Suffolk Chapter of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, and we got the city to postpone the library project, a replacement of Morgan Memorial Library, a perfectly fine library near the heart of downtown.  They had planned to spend 1.5 million dollars buying up the land, for a library they were not projecting to build until sometime after 2019.  It seemed a ridiculous waste of money considering they were already planning to raise taxes, and did NOT have the full 9 million extra the school system was requesting.  So City Council was forced to defer the project.

This year, they’ve partnered with Paul De Camp Community College for 2 reasons.  First, to try to get grant money from the state to fund the project. Second, to make the Tea Party types shut up about it, because how could we possibly be against education?  /eyeroll

The new library will be on the corner of Lee & West Washington, where there are several houses & business right now, so that land would have to bought and taken off the tax rolls.  Also, it will cost $22 MILLION dollars!  That’s twice the cost of the new city hall!

Our illustrious mayor, Ms. Linda Johnson, has said in the past that she really wants this library project to go forward. She honestly believes that if we have a spiffy new library across from our spiffy new City Hall, that people will just love to hang out there.  Because, oh yes – when I think of where I want to go hang out and relax, I think City Hall.  /eyeroll   No, I am not joking. She actually said that.  You’d have to go through the archives of the City Council meeting discussing the project, but it’s there.

So the Council really wants this project, but they know they will face resistance again.  They joined up with PDCCC to try to circumvent the resistance by getting state money.  However, state legislators are telling them that the money won’t come from the state anytime soon.  LOL!

Dear citizens of Suffolk, be prepared, and start fighting this NOW!  Go to council meetings and speak up during the Non-Agenda Speakers time!  Start telling the council NOW that this project needs to stop, the city does not have the money, and the legislators have made it clear that the money won’t be coming from the state anytime soon.

Budget Battle Starts Today!

Money-01The Budget Battle starts today!!! At the City Council Retreat (currently going on right now at the Health & Human Services building) The council is discussing things that will impact the budget in big ways. If you have a few free moments today and tomorrow, please pop over there and make sure they know we are watching!

Here is the agenda:
Thursday

8:30 to 9 a.m. — Breakfast
9 to 9:30 a.m. — Welcome, retreat agenda review, video
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. — Economic development accomplishments, public safety accomplishments, financial accomplishments
10:45 to 11 a.m. — Council-city manager form of government
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — Lunch break
2 to 2:30 p.m. — Assessor update
2:30 to 3:45 p.m. — Capital Improvements Plan: Neighborhood, water and transportation projects
3:45 to 4 p.m. — Break
4 to 5 p.m. — Quality of life: Parks, Social Services and libraries

Friday

8:30 to 9 a.m. — Breakfast
9 to 10 a.m. — Southeastern Public Service Authority
10 to 10:15 a.m. — Break
10:15 to 10:45 a.m. — Goals and objectives
10:45 to 11:45 a.m. — Employee health, wellness and benefits
11:45 a.m. to noon — Break
Noon to 12:45 p.m. — Working lunch: Comprehensive plan
12:45 to 1:15 p.m. — Recap and wrap-up

It’s All About the Budget, Baby! – City Of Suffolk Education Retreat

20130814-EdRetreat01Today the School Board and City Council got together for the yearly “Education Retreat.” Why it is called a “Retreat,” I have no idea. They have to have this in public view, and no one involved is in any way relaxed when it’s over, but whatever.

I was able to attend the beginning of the meeting, and saw most of the rest online later. There is an agenda available on the city’s website. What really got me was when near the end of the meeting, Councilman Mike Duman said that the “elephant in the room” was the budget, and how all this related to the budget. Mayor Linda Johnson shut down the ensuing debate by insisting that this was not a budget meeting, “That’s not what this is about.” Really Mayor Johnson? This meeting, where the better part of 4 hours was spent discussing the need for more money for teacher salaries, maintenance, and capital improvements, was not about the budget? Really? Really?

Chairman Debranski opened the meeting by saying,

“None of us take this [education of Suffolk children] lightly. We both have a distinct responsibility to those students. Ours is to educate, and provide them with the information they need to future their life’s endeavors, yours is to finance those endeavors, and our goals.”

That’s our School Board Chairman folks. Yup. By the way, he’s up for re-election in 2014. So…. who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

The presentation slide for the School Board claimed that “30% of teachers leave,” and the presenters said it was because of low pay. But when Councilman Parr pressed for clarification, it was revealed that a total of 10% of Suffolk’s teaching force left the city. Of those, 21% gave no response as to why they were leaving, 16% retired, 31% were transferring out of the area, and 30% left the Suffolk System to teach at other localities. Those that left to teach at other localities are the ones that the School Board is claiming left because of pay, however, as Councilman Duman pointed out, there are many other factors that could have contributed to the teachers’ decisions to leave. Things like cost of living, transportation, work environment, paperwork, relationships with administration, and even parental involvement can play a role in the teachers’ decisions to leave the Suffolk Public School System. The truth is, the exit interviews do not include enough evidence to support the claims that 30% of the teachers who left did so because of pay. For the School Board to claim it was solely because of pay is disingenuous at best.

20130814-EdRetreat04During a discussion of health benefits, Vice-Mayor Brown said, “We have to find ways to think outside the box, do things differently, without saying, ‘tax increase.'” Of course, that’s not what he was saying last April when the city was facing a deficit, in part because of the huge 14% raise he voted to give to the City Manager. He’s saying things like this now, because he’s up for re-election in 2014. So… who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

When discussing attendance, Councilman Parr asked why the kids from downtown were being sent to 5 different schools. He followed his question up by asking when was the last time the Suffolk Public Schools was rezoned. The answer, at least 24 years ago. Board Member Bouchard pointed out that racial balance in schools is a reason why our school districts are funky. Chairman Debranski agreed, and pointed out that Suffolk falls under a federal mandate to maintain racially balanced schools. But Superintendent Whitney admitted that we have several schools that are not adequately racially balanced. The School Board tends to want to build new facilities in growth areas instead of rezoning, but the Council wants the School system to use it’s existing buildings more effectively. Board Member Brooks-Buck made the point that Council needs to consider the transportation needs, but Mayor Johnson reminded the School Board that it takes A LOT of money to build new buildings, money we don’t have.

Under Shared Services, something that we brought up at the last budget go-round, it was disclosed that the while the city & school do share many services, the city has a tendency to nickel & dime the school system every chance they get. Things like demanding the school pay cost + overhead for parts for the buses, rental fees for space in the city garages, and even demanding the reimbursement of the salaries of the Police Officers sent to work as “Resource Officers.” Meanwhile, the School system allows the Registrar’s office to use school buildings for polling locations at NO charge, and only bills the city for maintenance & utilities when the various city departments use school facilities for whatever reasons.

One place the school system would like to be able to share services in lawn care, so far no response from the city.

During a discussion about the SOL scores and why the scores drop the first year that new SOL is being used, Superintendent Deran Whitney actually said,

“It’s not a matter of teaching to that test, as much as it is teaching that format and using that format throughout the daily lessons.”

So, we don’t teach to the test, we just modify our instruction to fit what is expected on the test. But that’s totally not the same thing as teaching to the test. Really, Superintendent Whitney? Really?

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Johnson played a slideshow of the “Goals of the Joint Meeting.” These were the items that each member of the respective bodies had submitted at the beginning of the session. The majority said things along the lines of working together, better communication between the two bodies, & mutual respect. It remains to be seen whether or not both the City Council & the School Board can put aside the perpetual pissing match over funds and truly work together on anything.

City to add $57 Million Dollars in NEW debt

Money-01

The City Council on Wednesday gave preliminary authorization to $57 million in new debt and set a public hearing for July 17 to get input on the bond sales.

The money will finance a variety of upcoming capital projects, including utility improvements and another round of funding for Pioneer Elementary School, currently under construction off Holland Road. (via Suffolk News Herald)

My question is: Does this mean that City Council authorized spending on these projects without having the money? It appears so, I haven’t been able to get a straight answer on that question yet.

I did contact the budget office to get more information, and was told that the issuance of bonds is something they do every year, and it’s like getting a loan for a mortgage. Thing is, most people aren’t refinancing their home every year.

Tax, Water Rate Increases Pass Council

Wednesday night, the council passed the budget as written with the 6 cent property tax increase & the water rate increases. The vote was 5-3. Councilman Fawcett voted against the water increases and Councilmen Ward & Duman voted against it because they wanted to take over a million dollars from a savings account the city has set aside for emergencies and give it to the school system for an HVAC system.

But, on the plus side, we did win a few small concessions. I don’t want anyone in our group to feel like we failed. If we had not spoken out, the tax increase would likely have been much higher. Remember, at the budget hearing in March, they were talking about anywhere from 11-23 cent increases to pay for so much more. It is because we spoke out that the 2 projects were deferred (the Library land acquisition, & the Bennett’s Creek Rec Center – located 700 yards from Creekside Rec).

We did well for our first time really challenging the budget process. Folks in the city government now know, without a doubt, that we are not only out here, but active & educated about the process. Several councilmen now know our leadership by sight, and on more than one occasion have actively sought out our leadership for discussions. It may not seem like we accomplished much, but we did.

http://www.suffolknewsherald.com/2013/05/01/513m-budget-passed/

http://hamptonroads.com/2013/05/suffolk-property-tax-rate-climb-6-cents

Lessons Learned from the Assistant Superintendent

**Cross posted from Suffolk HRTP **

By: Beau B

Last Tuesday (4/16) we had Assistant Superintendent Kevin Alston at our regular meeting. We grilled him about the school’s budget and the school system’s relationship with the city & council.

The biggest challenge facing our public school system is unfunded mandates. The funding from the state and federal governments has dropped in recent years, but the mandates have not.

One instance, Mr. Alston told us that he is mandated to provide transportation for homeless students, even when they are now outside the district. He told us that this federal mandate was costing a minimum of $3,000 a week – and that money was NOT provided by the state or federal government, that was money that had to come out of the local contribution. The VA Pilot even did a story about this back in 2009. That’s just one example of the way mandates are eating away at the school’s budget. There are plenty of other ways that unfunded, or even partially funded mandates are eating away at the school budget.

Another reason that seemed to stand out to me, lack of state funding. In Virginia, the state primarily funds the locality’s public school system, with the locality (aka city) kicking in a share, then whatever other monies the school system can get out of the federal government or fees & charges is to cover the rest. Thing is, the state funding is based solely on population, or number of students in the system. But what the state is NOT taking into consideration is the land mass of the locality.

One way this affects Suffolk Public Schools is in the Health Department. According to the state, as Mr. Alston informed us, Suffolk only needs 14 nurses. Therefore the state only sends enough money to fund 14 nurses. However, as we all know, the city has 20 schools, and each school must have a nurse. Further complicating this matter is the mandates that require certain kids in the system with extremely special needs require a dedicated nurse on staff. The result is that Suffolk Public School needs 25 nurses. Therefore, the salaries & benefits of roughly 11 nurses is coming out of the money the city gives to the school system.

There are some ways the school system could save a few pennies, one of them being to share services with the city for things like maintenance and groundskeeping. Reducing the School Board’s benefits is another area where they can save a few dollars. Currently the School Board is getting 90% of the their healthcare covered by the school system, as well as retirement.

However, this fight will continue to happen every year. Both City Council & the School Board feel the other is in the wrong. The Council wants the School Board to understand that the city just does NOT have the funds to give any more to the schools, and the School Board feels that Council does not have education as a priority, an impression that was further cemented when Council approved big raises for several of the upper echelon in city government this last year. Until these two entities can come together, every year in April will be a big public battle.

Tea Party Meets with City Budget Director

** Cross posted from Suffolk HRTP**

On Monday, April 15, after spending the weekend before pouring through the budget documents that were released online, Co-Chairman Janet Gurwell & Vice-Chair Lorraine Yuriar (that’s me) met with the city’s Budget Director, Anne Seward, in an attempt to learn more about the numbers. Interesting tidbit: Janet & I were the ONLY citizens to meet with Ms. Seward.

We learned that Ms. Seward does indeed have that line-item budget we wanted, it’s just hidden under the dubious title of “working papers.” She will show & tell you anything you want to know from the stack of papers and files, however. All you have to do is contact her, either by phone [514-4006] or in person.

Ms. Seward is very knowledge, efficient, and an overall nice lady. It truly is a pity that more citizens didn’t take her up on her numerous offers to meet up and discuss the budget. She was able to answer all of our questions thoroughly, and even explained some items we had not considered. She is very good at her job, and has been working hard to not only keep track of city spending habits, but to clean up the budget and get expenses allocated properly.

The biggest example of this comes in the IT expenses this year. We all discovered what a mess the IT department was in when the Suffolk News Herald did their expose on the office. It should come as no surprise that their billing practices were equally messy. This year, Ms. Seward took over IT’s billing. Where the city’s IT costs used to be distributed evenly across all city departments, she has changed that this year. This year, Ms. Seward has worked hard to sort out actual IT expenses per department, and only charge each department for what they actually use. The result – on the budget document we can find online, several departments appear to have massive increases in their IT expenses, while other departments have drastic savings in theirs. Ms. Seward has been working on cleaning up more and more of the budget since she took over the job a few years back. This year, the expense areas she focused on cleaning up were IT, Fleet, Copier, & Utilities.

In Utilities, there was no one person keeping track of what each department was spending, but there is now. Ms. Seward has changed the way the city handles each department’s utility bills, by having each department forward their bills to a certain person. It is now that person’s job to keep an eye on each department’s utility usage, to look for usage patterns and potential savings.

As a result of our meeting, we were able to come up with a list of ways the city could potentially reduce spending in an effort to stop the tax increase & water bill increase.

More than just property taxes are going up!

tellcouncilno

The budget presented to City Council at their last Work Session not only raises our real estate property taxes, it will also increase our HRUBS bills by 10%!

The city has decided to pay for the water projects in the CIP by raising the fees on your water & sewer, this way they can claim to keep property tax low, but still get more money from the citizens. The water usage fee will increase 9.9%, while the sewer fee will increase 8.8%, because of other facets of the HRUBS bill, it means roughly a 10% increase. This means if you have a water bill that averages about $220 every two months, this increase will cost you another $22 every two months. That’s $130 extra a year.

Real Estate Property Tax is determined by the value of your property. This year’s budget will increase your property tax by $0.06. For every $100 dollars of value, you are currently paying $0.97. This year’s budget raises that rate to $1.03. So if your home is currently assessed at $175,000, your new tax bill would be $1,802.05 – about $105 more than last year. Keep in mind, the more money the city says your property is worth, the more money they can collect from you in taxes on it. This is why there are a few developers and a hotel currently bringing a lawsuit against the city for over-inflating their property tax assessments for the last several years. By the way, this property tax increase will affect renters too. When your landlord’s tax bill for the property you are renting increases, where do you think he will get the money for to pay it? Our co-chairman, Janet, would like to encourage everyone to take a good look at their current assessment. Is there any way you could sell your property at that price today? If not, call the assessor’s office and ask to have your assessment adjusted.

City Council has proven that they are listening to us! We can not back down now! All of us, when faced with the prospect of earning less money this year than last, are forced to cut our budgets & make do with less. Yet when the city is faced with less money, they raise our taxes and keep right on spending. It’s time for City Council to tighten the city’s financial belt and make some tough choices.

Call your councilman. Let him know that this water/sewer fee increase is an outrageous tax on the hardworking people of Suffolk. Tell them the 6 cent increase in property taxes is unacceptable in today’s economy. But most importantly, show up to the next council meeting, April 17, 2013 at 7pm at City Hall. Get there early, bring signs. Be prepared to stay for the long haul. We must make our voices the loudest in the room in order to make sure that the City Council, the City Manager, and even the School Board hear our message.

Celebrate the Small Stuff

victory

Just about everyone in Suffolk agrees on one thing: City Council does NOT listen to the people. However, City Council is listening to us! True, the budget still includes a property tax increase, and a water/sewer fee increase, however, two projects we spoke out against were deferred! There is even better evidence beyond that, proving Council & the City Manager are paying attention to US!

The biggest victory is, of course, the deferment of two projects. The “Central Library” plan, which was to replace Morgan Memorial, was slated to spend 1.5 million dollars acquiring land in the coming year, while the building itself was not slated to be built until 2019 at the earliest. That would have meant 5 years of that area of property being off the tax rolls, not to mention the businesses that would have been shut down during the acquisition. This was NOT a good idea in this economy. You complained, City Council listened. The project will likely come up again in the future, but for this coming year, it’s off the books.

The other project that was deferred was the Bennett’s Creek Rec Center. This particular rec center was to have been built a short 700 yards from the existing Creekside Rec Center. It would have cost the city 1.25 million dollars to renovate the building & surrounding land in the coming year and would have added over $400,000 a year in maintenance, upkeep, & salaries.

The deferment of these two projects will reduce the rate of spending growth by 2.7 million dollars! Everyone who called their councilman, or showed up to the March 18th budget meeting, you did that!

Another piece of evidence that the Suffolk HRTP has gotten the attention of City Council, was the numerous times that multiple councilmen & government representatives kept insisting that the budget that has been released is a line-item budget. Even better, the documents were released at the time the Work Session started, when it would normally take 24 hours or more to for the city to get them online.

The last bit of evidence that proves our voices are being heard; the city manager’s letter directly addressed the question of reducing the fleet, an item brought up by several of our members at the March 18th Budget Meeting. She of course was against such a measure, but the point is, she addressed it! Ms. Selena Cuffee-Glenn responded to us!

While there is still much work to be done in Suffolk, it is important for us to celebrate these small victories and realize that we ARE making a difference in Suffolk.

Now, back to work.

Suffolk Tea Party issues “Better City Challenge” to Council, School Board

On Monday, March 19, 2013, Councilman Parr said, “I’d love to see a line item budget from the schools.” We agree, and would like to challenge the Councilman to take it a step further and also request a line item budget from the city.

Mayor Johnson has said repeatedly that the budget is not due until the end of June. There is plenty of time for both the School Board and the City Council to put together and release a line item budget. We would like to see these line item budgets available to the public 30 days ahead of a public hearing, to allow the citizens of this city to give the City Council and the School Board ideas and direction for ways to trim down both budgets.

It was very disingenuous of the City Council to hold a public hearing requesting citizens to give them “specific ideas of where to cut city spending” without giving the citizens any sort of documentation ahead of time detailing city spending habits.

It also appears that either the School Board or the Education Association of Suffolk has misled the teachers. Teachers need to know that the School Board gets a lump sum from the city. It is the School Board’s responsibility to distribute that money in a manner they see fit. The city has very little to do with the teachers’ pay raise.

At the end of the public hearing, several councilmen, especially Mr. Duman and Mr. Parr, commented that although they had heard the two messages; NO to more taxes & fund the schools, that they were disappointed the citizens had not given them specifics to cut in order to fulfill those two messages.

Councilman Parr himself came up with an idea to save the city some money in the council meeting on March 6th. When he mentioned that he did not want to hear people telling him to cut the council’s salaries, Mayor Johnson said with a chuckle, “That would be wonderful if it would balance the budget, but it won’t work.” Councilman Parr then chimed in with, “If $20,000 or $15,000 will do it, they can have it.” We would challenge the Councilman & the Mayor, as well as the rest of the Council, and even the School Board, to follow through.

But despite the councilmen’s assertions, there were several options mentioned, including cutting back on city vehicles & not funding 100% of the city manager’s healthcare costs. It was otherwise impossible for citizens to give the Councilmen what they wanted due to a lack of information about the city’s spending habits.

As such, we, the Suffolk Chapter of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, do challenge the City Council, the City Manager’s Office, and the School Board to:

  • Release a line item budget.
  • Post said budget online and allow 30 days for citizens to peruse the documents.
  • Hold a public meeting, town hall style to allow for true interaction between the City Council /School Board and the public. Anyone who does NOT have anything to say beyond “fund the schools” should be told to add their names to a list, and allow for those with genuine ideas about spending reform to be heard.

The ball is in your court Councilmen. Make it happen.

** Cross posted from Suffolk HRTP