Portsmouth approves 3-cent tax increase, $1M cut to sheriff’s budget

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Fights over a local city’s budget came to an end Tuesday night.

Portsmouth City Council passed a budget proposal with controversial spending cuts and heard concerns from several citizens in what was a tense meeting. In a vote of 4-3, council approved a 3-cent tax increase to help deal with an $11.7 million shortfall. The opposing votes came from Vice Mayor Elizabeth Psimas and councilmen Bill Moody and Danny Meeks.

After the budget was passed, Wright told 10 On Your Side, “It’s never fun raising taxes, but you’ve got to make some tough decisions, and that’s what we were elected for. Overall, I’m pleased with this budget. There’s some things that I’d like to see going forward, because if we don’t put some things in place, we’ll be staring down this barrel next year.”

Several weeks ago, the city manager presented a budget proposal including a 17-cent real-estate tax increase. Shortly after that presentation, city council ousted the city manager and city attorney. News of the city finance director’s resignation and the police chief’s retirement came soon after.

Mayor Wright said that’s when council members knew they would need to “line item by line item” to deal with the budget shortfall.

“It’s been a very difficult budget year,” Councilman Bill Moody said. “It’s not without sacrifices, and everybody didn’t sacrifice equally.”

Mayor Wright said city leaders unofficially agreed to the budget proposal during a work session Monday night, before the vote Tuesday. The budget will increase city tax by three cents and give a two-percent pay increase to general wage city employees, excluding police and fire.

“I’ve been very pleased with the last five years with what we’ve done with our police and fire and getting their salaries up to a competitive range, and because we’ve done that, was the reason why I recommended we not give them the raise this year,” Wright said.

Some of the spending cuts include putting a freeze on hiring and reducing funding to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame by $250,000. The new budget will not cut any funding from city libraries or schools.

The city will also cut $1 million from the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Office budget. The mayor said the city is paying for 250 beds at the regional jail — which is run by the sheriff’s office — but only 210 beds are being used. According to the mayor, that wastes about $450,000 a year.

“It should have very little impact on [the sheriff],” Mayor Wright said. “He’s got enough people to do the work that he’s required to do by state law … He admitted that he had 16 people too many, and he’s got about 40 inmates over here in this jail that need to be moved over to the regional jail.”

Reached by phone after the budget was passed, Sheriff Watson said, “I’ve never seen such reckless endangerment of the public as they’ve done tonight.”

Councilman Moody told 10 On Your Side he thinks the cuts to public safety departments are wrong and wasn’t impressed by limiting tax increases to 3 cents.

“Unfortunately, in this budget, we’re not [cutting back on spending] to any great extent,” Moody said. “In fact, next year I think it’s going to be even more of a challenge.”

In all the talks over the city’s budget, Mayor Wright said council saw the need for the city to bring in more revenue so it could operate within its own means, instead of raising taxes.

“I’ve got some real concerns about the size of government and some of the things that we’re doing downstream, because again, this problem could raise its ugly head again in a year or two, and so we’ve got to be prudent with the taxpayers’ dollars and make sure we’re not setting ourselves up for this type of disaster in the future,” Wright said.

Robert Marcus, owner of Bob’s Gun Shop in Norfolk, who lives in Portsmouth, said he was supportive of a petition being drafted to recall Mayor Wright. He called the mayor “disruptive.”

“I can’t respond to people making those types of claims. I love this city. I love being mayor. It is an awesome responsibility to be able to look at these challenges that we have … That’s their prerogative,” Wright said.

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