• 73°

Mayor, councilman raise budget issues

Mayor Mike Duman and Councilman Roger Fawcett have asked Interim City Manager Al Moor to look into whether there is room in the budget to push back on water and sewer rate increases and provide more resources to the sheriff’s office.

Fawcett had initially asked Moor to look at the budget for the sheriff’s office to add an additional deputy, convert a pair of part-time clerk positions to full time and add resources to the department due to increased courthouse use due to issues with the Southampton County courthouse causing cases there to move to Suffolk. He cited a letter from Sheriff E.C. Harris that council members had received highlighting his department’s needs.

“I think he makes a very compelling argument,” Fawcett said.

The sheriff’s office, which currently has 25 positions, requested 28 for fiscal year 2022. However, Moor’s proposed budget calls for 26 positions to be funded, and he has proposed an 11% increase in funding for the sheriff’s office — from about $2.95 million to nearly $3.27 million. The biggest jump in the sheriff’s office budget would come in information technology. That part of the budget would go up by 58% from $247,495 to $391,099.

Councilman Donald Goldberg asked whether the city would be able to charge Southampton County for the increased costs that Suffolk would incur.

“Councilman, that’s something that we’re going to have to investigate,” Moor said, “but it would seem that that discussion would be appropriate.”

Duman, who as mayor cannot make motions, then asked Moor publicly during the April 21 City Council meeting to look at water and sewer rates, saying he has had previous conversations with him about the issue “that may be viable in mitigating proposed water rate increases.”

Council has deferred rate increases throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the last time coming in February. That rate increase deferral extends until June 30 — the last day of fiscal year 2021. At that time, it noted that “the ability to defer the rate increases for another 90 days is due to additional debt service savings realized through the refunding of existing utility fund debt.”

When council approved the current $651 million budget nearly a year ago, it deferred several previously planned increases — a 26-cent increase in the water rate from $9.71 to $9.97 per 748 gallons; a 27-cent increase in the sewer rate from $7.27 to $7.54 per 748 gallons and the $1.50 per month increase in the meter service charge. City Finance Director Tealen Hansen said at the time that deferral cost the city $450,000.

When council approved the rate freeze last December, Moor said that with the help of the city’s financial advisors and the Virginia Resource Authority, the city was able to refinance 2015 VRA bonds that the utility funds had, which provided about $433,000 in savings in the current fiscal year.

Last summer, the city’s Public Utilities department unveiled a program to provide help for qualifying city residents who have had financial difficulties due to employment impacts caused by the pandemic to deal with water, sewer and wastewater charges.

In Moor’s proposed $698 million budget for fiscal year 2022, water and sewer rates would increase 70 cents to $10.41, with the sewer collection going from $7.27 to $7.31 and the meter charge going from $11.25 to $12.75. At the time he introduced his budget, Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett and Fawcett said they wanted to take another look at the water rates to see if they could be lowered.

Duman highlighted areas in which the city had already taken steps to reduce past rate increases, including limiting development and increased density in areas with existing infrastructure and the ongoing refinancing of utility bonds that postponed increases during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said city staff has also postponed a number of utility projects which are not regulatory-driven or required due to increased demands.

Duman said city staff also negotiated a new groundwater permit with the state Department of Environmental Quality working through the Western Tidewater Water Authority. He said it deferred the need to build new surface water treatment capacity for an additional 10 years.

“All of these actions, along with efficient operational activities have continued to minimize rate impacts over the last six years,” Duman said.