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City Council to take up budget

Suffolk City Council is expected to decide Wednesday on adoption of the $651.3 million city budget for the upcoming fiscal year that keeps real estate taxes level while deferring fee increases for water, sewer and trash collection.

There had been a proposed $4.15 per month increase, on average, in residents’ water and sewer bills in the proposed budget, though the Hampton Roads Sanitation District Commission rescinded its proposed 9-percent regional wastewater rate increase that would have taken effect July 1, citing the economic stresses on ratepayers created by the coronavirus pandemic. The refuse fee was to rise by $3.95 per month, though that is billed twice per year.

Council voted earlier this month to defer water and sewer rate increases for 90 days and to defer the refuse fee increase by six months without any reduction in services.

Council will meet virtually at 2 p.m., with the meeting livestreamed on the city’s website.

The real estate tax level is proposed to stay at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value, with general fund revenue projected to increase by $6 million to $225 million in the next fiscal year. The current overall budget is $639.4 million.

“This budget and how it is structured, the financial projections, are absolutely sound,” said City Manager Patrick Roberts before a May 6 public hearing on the budget. “They are based on verifiable financial assertions, and I have complete confidence in the assertions and financial projections that go into it.”

City Finance Director Tealen Hansen said in a budget presentation that the city is projecting a $750,000 decrease in meals, sales and lodging taxes — what she said are more consumable taxes. The city is also projecting a decline by more than $1 million in fees, charges and other miscellaneous items due to the drop in interest earnings of its cash in its bank account.

She said the city’s preliminary revenue collection for April — which is March’s revenue numbers when it comes to things like the meals tax — “are coming in about where we expected them to, in some cases a little better than we expected them to, actually.”

The proposed budget also provides Suffolk Public Schools with $62.3 million, $1.5 million more than last year, but about $2.44 million less than what it requested from the city. The state has also cut out $1.18 million for raises, $275,270 for additional school counselor funding, $338,776 for at-risk funding and cut pre-kindergarten programs by $270,506.

In total, the school division is faced with having to trim its budget by nearly $4.4 million when combined with state revenue shortfalls. It has reduced raises proportionally for staff and plans to delay some parts of the SPS Efficiency and Effectiveness plan by a year, and cut increases in non-salary costs that had been requested by different departments in the school division.

The School Board will get a complete list of proposed changes to consider at its May 26 meeting, in which its budget is scheduled for final adoption.

Roberts has said that the city has made the assumption that a number of businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic will be able to return to a semblance of normal by sometime in the second quarter of the upcoming fiscal year, and that any reduction in revenue would take place in the first few months in the upcoming fiscal year.

A copy of the proposed budget is available on the city website and can be viewed by appointment at City Hall. Those with questions about the budget can email the city or call 514-4016.

“It … is a budget that I would characterize as giving the City Council and city staff the greatest flexibility to continue to provide the services that the people of Suffolk have come to expect,” Roberts said. “At the same time, the way it is structured allows me and my staff to curtail expenditures on short notice should the financial impacts of the pandemic become greater than what we’ve anticipated.”