The potential for an intra-City Hall legal fight over the budget dissolved Monday as the Richmond City Council balanced its amendments to next year’s spending plan with an assist from Mayor Levar Stoney.
The council resumed its review of the mayor’s proposed $757 million budget days after tensions arising from its deliberations boiled over in dramatic fashion: Administrators walked out. Council members cried foul. An $11 million hole remained.
Alleviating the tensions was a new assurance from Stoney to certify up to $9.5 million worth of revenue not reflected in his original proposal. The council used the money, as well as cuts to proposed capital spending and funding for vacant positions, to balance the budget with a real estate tax rate of $1.20 per $100 of assessed value.
Balancing the budget without $21 million in new revenue from a 9-cent real estate tax increase that Stoney proposed in March presented a tall task for a council that made no cuts to the mayor’s spending plan last year. In the end, the council maintained the existing tax rate, fully funded Richmond Public Schools’ operating and capital requests, and preserved paving projects Stoney said were desperately needed.
“I think we’ve done a stellar job getting to where we are,” said 9th District Councilman Michael Jones. “A lot of tough decisions had to be made.”
The outcomes were anything but assured after the council’s last work session devolved into chaos.
Chief Administrative Officer Selena Cuffee-Glenn — Stoney’s top administrator — told council members at the last session that the mayor would not certify the new revenues they were counting on.
Her announcement came after a majority of the council agreed on an across-the-board cut to city operations in an effort to save $7.5 million. Cuffee-Glenn’s announcement led to sharp criticism from some members of the council, who viewed the decision as retaliatory. Amid the barbs, she and every other city administrator in attendance at the work session walked out, leaving council members frustrated and discussing potential legal action.
A majority of the council voted that day to seek outside counsel in case Stoney did not agree to certify the money. There was little discussion of the matter Monday with the new commitment from Stoney, who on Friday sent a memo agreeing to certify $6.5 million in new real estate tax revenue from rising assessments based on information the city assessor provided.
An additional $2.5 million from delinquent real estate tax revenue was also in question after Wednesday’s hectic session last week. The sum was tied to the enforcement of development agreements for properties sold through the city’s delinquent-tax sale program.
But the council indicated Monday morning that it would suspend enforcement of a policy requiring the agreements for a one-year period. Council staff members estimate the shift could generate $3 million, a figure that also requires certification. Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said the mayor intends to certify that sum as well.
In other amendments, the council slashed cash spending on capital projects in the fiscal year that runs from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020, by $7.4 million. It also reduced funding for vacant positions in various departments to save $2.1 million.
The capital cuts, laid out by the council staff, were presented as an alternative to the across-the-board, 1.5 percent reduction to city operations that the council supported last week. Council members decided against mandating those cuts Monday.
Lenora Reid, Stoney’s deputy chief administrative officer for finance and administration, called cutting the cash spending on capital projects, as opposed to city departments, the “lesser of two evils.”
The amendments left the council with about $800,000 left over.
Its members then restored a portion of the new funding Stoney originally proposed for the GRTC Transit System. Last week, a majority of the council voted to cut the new funding, totaling $965,000. The money will go toward expanding service in the East End and South Richmond. Stoney lauded the decision on Twitter.
Council President Cynthia Newbille said the council ended its deliberations, spanning 7½ weeks, on a high note.
“I want to thank everybody for staying the course,” Newbille said.
A final vote on the budget is slated for May 13.