Henrico County’s Board of Supervisors has approved a budget for fiscal 2021 that preserves pay for police officers, firefighters, teachers and other county government employees, but puts a pause on new capital projects, hires and raises.
Tuesday’s approval of the $1.3 billion budget comes two weeks later than planned, as county budget officials needed more time to balance the budget again. They ultimately cut expenses by nearly $100 million.
A conservative budget plan, Henrico officials say, is necessary because no one is sure when the economy will bounce back during the COVID-19 pandemic as state and local officials prepare to let businesses reopen as normal in the coming months.
“It’s of the utmost importance that we’re careful,” Supervisor Dan Schmitt said. “We can’t control this virus ... but we can control flexibility in the budget.”
Officials ratcheted down revenue projections from the original budget plan unveiled in early March after the public health crisis triggered a nearly instantaneous economic downturn, reducing March tax revenue from hotels and restaurants by 45% and 33%, respectively.
More than 21,600 Henrico residents applied for unemployment benefits by the end of April.
The county ruled out furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs, but pulled the funding for a 3% pay increase for all employees and at least 5% of all departmental budgets.
Deputy Finance Director Meghan Coates said the finance staff considered workforce cost reductions while facing a $12.8 million budget gap last month.
“That was a strategy discussed, but it was rejected by this Board of Supervisors,” she said during Tuesday’s board meeting.
The county also removed funding for new capital projects, including an indoor sports arena at Virginia Center Commons and an elementary school in the Fairfield District.
Employee raises and funding for the projects could come back into play, however, as the county will consider potential budget amendments that reintroduce those plans if revenues are better than expected.
“I think fortunately we’ve found a floor and we’ll have better news when we come forward for the quarterly amendments,” Coates said. “Those priorities will remain intact.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Tommy Branin warned that the county must remain cautious in case additional economic hardship is created by another surge of COVID-19.
“We need to keep a watchful eye on what we can pull back, because if we get hit again ... we wouldn’t have any more rabbits in the hat,” he said.
The county’s real estate tax rate will remain at 87 cents per $100 of assessed value, but most homeowners will pay more this year because of higher assessments on about three-fourths of residential properties.
Assessments on about two-thirds of the county’s commercial properties also increased.
The first half of real estate taxes are due to the county on June 5, but property owners will have until Aug. 5 to pay the bill without incurring any late fees or penalties under an emergency ordinance the Board of Supervisors endorsed again Tuesday.
Henrico is also suspending late fees and interest on bills that are past due for the county’s levies on meals and hotels through Aug. 20.
Property owners can pay taxes and utility fees in person at the Henrico Government Center, but officials are temporarily waiving online processing fees to encourage remote payment.
More information about remotely paying taxes and fees can be found online at Henrico.us/finance.
About 500 county businesses will become exempt from business license taxes under the new budget plan.
By raising the tax exemption threshold from $400,000 to $500,000, about 15,000 businesses in the county will not have to pay it.
Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday rejected a call by the Republican General Assembly leadership for a moratorium on the early releases of prison inmates with violent records.
The state Republican leaders made their plea for the moratorium Tuesday in response to the pending parole release of Vincent Martin, who murdered a Richmond police officer in 1979.
“Yesterday’s announcement by Secretary [Brian] Moran that the early release of Vincent Martin has been delayed for 30 days was welcome news. In our view, the murderer of Richmond police officer Michael Connors should complete the life sentence he received upon conviction,” says a statement from House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah; Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City; and others.
“It is time for Governor Northam to demonstrate support for the victims, and the families of victims, of violent crimes,” they added. “The governor should immediately impose a moratorium on the early release of those convicted of violent felonies.”
Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam, wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that “Governor Northam rejects this proposal. Based on our current laws, parole provides a very limited number of individuals — who have rehabilitated themselves and demonstrated that their release is compatible with public safety — the opportunity for a second chance.”
“The Governor and his administration have worked tirelessly to create a fairer and more equitable criminal justice system, and safe parole is an important part of that work,” she added.
Martin’s parole was unrelated to an expedited effort in recent weeks by the Virginia Parole Board to release offenders in light of COVID-19, the board’s former chair said before leaving that position.
Advocates have pressed for months for the release of as many prison and jail inmates as was safely possible as the pandemic made its way behind bars. As of Monday, 719 state prison inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and five have died, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
The scheduled parole of Martin, convicted and sentenced to life for the 1979 murder of Connors, ran into opposition from law enforcement organizations and others and was put on hold Monday until the Office of the State Inspector General could investigate how the Parole Board reached its decision.
In a statement last month before she left to assume a juvenile and domestic relations court judgeship, Adrianne Bennett, former chairwoman of the Parole Board, said “Martin has demonstrated himself to be a trusted leader, peacemaker, mediator and mentor in the correctional community.”
“The decision to release Martin was not taken lightly. After much deliberation and for foregoing reasons, the Parole Board, by a super majority of four votes, granted parole to Vincent Martin,” wrote Bennett.
Tonya Chapman, the former Portsmouth police chief who began work as the Parole Board’s chair on April 16 after parole was granted to Martin, said in a statement Monday that she believes it would be prudent to delay Martin’s release “for a period not to exceed 30 days, pending the conclusion of this investigation.”
In another controversial recent Parole Board decision, Debra Scribner, 66, was granted geriatric conditional release on March 31. She, along with her daughter and grandson, was convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the killing of a man who was shot to death and his body dropped down a well in Halifax County in 2011.
Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Q. Martin alleged that the board ignored the law in granting parole to Scribner, complaining that her office and Wynn’s surviving brother, Kevin Wynn, should have been notified ahead of time by the Parole Board and were not.
Parole ended in Virginia for crimes that happened on or after Jan. 1, 1995. Just roughly 1,900 inmates remain eligible. Geriatric conditional release is also handled by the Parole Board.
The GOP legislators wrote Tuesday that Moran on Monday “correctly observed that a ‘cloud’ had formed over the Parole Board’s decision to release Mr. Martin. Regardless of the findings of the Inspector General’s investigation, that cloud will remain if Mr. Martin is freed within the next 30 days. Releasing an individual who was sentenced to life imprisonment for brutally murdering an on-duty police officer is an outrageous act and an affront to justice.”
“The revelations by the Associated Press that the Parole Board has ‘released dozens of violent offenders, including killers, rapists and kidnappers’ over the last several weeks are shocking. It is unconscionable that victims’ families have not received proper notification, as required by law, of these disgraceful decisions,” said the legislators’ statement.
Parole boards, through this administration and several previous ones, have long cautioned that virtually all remaining parole-eligible offenders have serious criminal backgrounds. As of April 30, more than 95% of parole-eligible offenders were serving sentences for violent crimes, said the board.
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, wrote in an email that “facts, individual circumstances and objective assessments of dangerousness should guide parole decisions, not ideology or emotionally appealing ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric. Each person’s eligibility for parole should be judged individually and objectively with the primary focus being public safety.”
Gastañaga cited part of the state code that states: “No person shall be released on parole by the board until a thorough investigation has been made into the prisoner’s history, physical and mental condition and character and his conduct, employment and attitude while in prison. The board shall also determine that his release on parole will not be incompatible with the interests of society or of the prisoner.”
“Input from victims of crime is welcomed, as it should be, but no one factor is or should be determinative of the decision whether a person should be paroled,” Gastañaga said.
In a separate early release program created in light of the pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed and the Democrat-controlled House and Senate approved, a budget amendment allowing the Virginia Department of Corrections to release some offenders with a year or less left to serve.
Thus far, 261 have been approved for release by the department, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The department will not release the names of the inmates being released under that effort. Those release decisions are based in part on their criminal records and whether they have a suitable place to go.
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With the start of Northern Virginia’s reopening delayed by two weeks, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is expressing reservations about whether Friday is the right time for officials to start easing restrictions in the city.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order Tuesday to let localities in Northern Virginia, the densely populated part of the state hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, delay entering the first phase of the state’s plan to relax restrictions mandated in response to the coronavirus’s spread. Northam has said that he expects other regions to start the first phase of reopening Friday if they meet certain statistical health standards.
Phase One would, among other things, allow businesses to reopen with industry-specific restrictions and allow places of worship to open at 50% capacity — a step Stoney said “could be problematic.”
Stoney said Richmond is considering asking Northam for an exemption similar to what Northern Virginia received.
“All I can say is it’s definitely being discussed here, locally, with this administration,” Stoney said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all for localities.”
He added: “I continue to believe that we need to be slow and cautious about reopening.”
Neither Richmond individually nor localities in the Richmond area have requested a delay similar to Northern Virginia.
“We have not received a formal request, and would evaluate it if and when we do,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmoksky. “We expect any request to be based first and foremost in public health data.”
Northam said Monday that localities can call for additional restrictions beyond the reopening guidelines he’s laid out — calling those a “floor” — but added that regions should act in concert. The chief executive had previously resisted calls for a regional approach to lifting restrictions.
Speaking of Northern Virginia on Monday, Northam said: “Uniformity across the region is critical to a successful strategy, rather than having restrictions piecemeal across towns and counties.”
Stoney said Richmond has asked the state for the data Northam used to decide that Virginia should enter Phase One and “once we have that data in hand, I think we will be able to speak further with our partners in Henrico and Chesterfield about their plans.”
“I understand that the governor wants everybody to be on the same page in the region to do so, but I think this is once again where being an independent city in this state kind of penalizes you,” Stoney said. “We’re different than the counties. That’s just the bottom line.”
In Virginia, counties and cities derive their differing powers from the General Assembly.
Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas said the county is proceeding with plans to begin reopening.
“We’re going to follow the governor’s plan that’s based on advice he’s got from state Health Department,” Vithoulkas said. “That’s our plan right now.”
Chesterfield County Administrator Joe Casey said in a statement that the county has been working with businesses for Northam’s planned reopening.
“We are prepared and, more importantly, trust our great businesses to not only follow the laws, but to ensure a safe workplace for employees and customers,” he said.
Delay in N.Va.
Under Northam’s executive order, the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William; the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg and Vienna will remain in “Phase Zero,” as leaders in those localities requested, until midnight on Thursday, May 28.
“The Phase One policies are a floor, not a ceiling,” Northam said in a statement. “While the data show Virginia as a whole” is “ready to slowly and deliberately ease some restrictions, it is too soon for Northern Virginia,” he said. “I support the request from localities in this region to delay implementation of Phase One to protect public health.”
Jeffrey McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said he appreciated the governor’s decision to delay the region’s start.
“Our county and region are actively working to meet the health criteria laid out by the governor, which are needed in order to reopen the economy, and we are hoping that is in the next couple of weeks,” McKay said in a statement.
He added that “Northern Virginia is a united front” and that its leaders will continue to closely track the health statistics “because we all want to reopen our economy as soon as possible based on public safety and data.”
In Richmond, COVID-19 data from the state Health Department shows that 16 of the 18 people who have died from the virus were African American, despite accounting for 48% of the city’s population.
A pilot program the city and state launched Tuesday aims to provide masks and hand sanitizer to address those disparities.
Local first responders, faith leaders and activists started distributing 20,000 face masks and 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, along with literature on the virus, to underserved communities after a launch of the program at Armstrong High School.
“[The virus] doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t know any borders; any boundaries,” Northam said at Armstrong. “One of the things that this pandemic has brought out and made us more aware of is we still have inequities in today’s society, and one of those inequities is access to medical care.”
Across Virginia, 891 people have died from the virus, according to the state Health Department, with 22% being African American, who make up 20% of the state’s population. Racial data for 101 deaths is unknown.
“We all are in this together, but we’re certainly not in the same boats,” said Janice Underwood, Northam’s chief diversity officer.
The figure of 891 deaths to date, which the Virginia Department of Health reported Tuesday, is an increase of 41 from Monday’s number of deaths. The agency, in its daily data report released Tuesday, said the total number of cases in the state has risen to 25,800 from 25,070 on Monday.
Of the reported deaths, 864 are confirmed to have been caused by the coronavirus and 27 are probable, according to the Health Department.
Last month, the agency started including probable COVID-19 cases and probable deaths in the state’s overall tally. Probable cases are people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19, but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
The number of outbreaks — defined by the state as at least two laboratory-confirmed cases connected by people, place and time — rose by four from Monday to Tuesday, totaling 275. Nearly 60% of those outbreaks (162 of 275) are in long-term care facilities, which are more susceptible to the virus and its spread.
Also Tuesday, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which represents 27 health systems and 110 hospitals, reported that 3,400 people in the state have been hospitalized by the virus and discharged.
Roughly 1,500 people who have either tested positive for the virus or have a test pending remain hospitalized.
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