After 40 hours of deliberations spanning six weeks, the Richmond City Council did not make a single cut to the $715.3 million general fund budget Mayor Levar Stoney proposed in March.
The lone general fund decrease the council made came in the form of a shift of $218,000 from one departmental budget to another, cleaving the inspector general function from the city auditor’s office. Discussions wound down ahead of schedule; a vote on the amended spending plans is slated for May 14.
While some council members applauded themselves for sewing up the deliberations earlier than in past years, others openly questioned whether the council had done its due diligence. The body leaned on higher real estate tax revenues and raised vehicle license fees to offset 24 increases to the mayor’s operating proposal. On the capital budget, the council ultimately did not boost funding for school building maintenance sought by Richmond Public Schools administrators, School Board members and education advocates.
“We need to have the knowledge and secondly the courage to prioritize the budget for the city, which is our job,” said Kristen Larson, the 4th District councilwoman. “Our strongest voice is through the budget. Did I feel like we gave our strongest voice this year? No.”
On display during the deliberations was a city government still hampered by its divisions.
The City Council contended with misleading information and pushback from Stoney’s administration at points. Its members also debated differing priorities among themselves, with some advocating for more capital funding for Richmond Public Schools while others pushed infrastructure projects in their home districts that were left out of the mayor’s proposal.
This year, the council sent the administration its proposed amendments in advance of its budget talks in exchange for “impact statements” explaining what would happen if the council followed through on the cuts. The change was meant to save time; many council members said it did, and also reduced back-and-forth debate with the administration. But it also gave the administration a heads-up of what projects council members were eyeing.
When the time came to discuss the amendments to the capital budget, the council was told, in several cases, there was no money remaining in the line items they identified because the administration had transferred the leftover balances to other open projects.
“Tipping the administration off and having the mayor sign off at the eleventh hour on what we toiled over was really an act of bad faith on the part of the Stoney administration,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman.
The mayor approved the transfers the day of the council meeting, budget director Jay Brown said. A provision of the City Charter granted him the power to do so, the administration said. After the revelation, council President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District openly blamed the city’s strong mayor form of government for the issue.
“It’s beyond belief,” Hilbert said at the time. “This form of government is extremely difficult. It breeds distrust between the administration and council.”
A divide was clear later in the process, too, as the council struggled to balance its capital amendments to fund road, sidewalk and other district-level projects that Stoney did not include in his spending plan.
Hilbert wrote a letter to the mayor asking for help. Stoney, who came into office promising a new era of collaboration in City Hall (“One Richmond”), told Hilbert he had done his part.
“I believe that I have fulfilled my duty in proposing a capital improvement plan that is balanced and consistent with my outlined citywide priorities, and see no requirement to identify reductions that could be used by council to shift priorities, typically to projects within their respective district,” Stoney wrote.
Left to balance its own cuts, the council homed in on an untapped source: $3.15 million in funding for public arts projects. Facing no opposition from the administration, council members drew down the account to $1 million, diverting money for sidewalk, paving and park projects in their respective districts.
Larson, the 4th District councilwoman, supported the decision at the time, but said she did so out of frustration, after watching her colleagues demur to the administration’s warnings when the council considered cutting other capital projects in the mayor’s proposal. She called the review of the capital improvement proposal “a disaster” and said she would push for a different process next year.
After the public outcry that followed the council decision, Stoney tweeted he would “restore these dollars as soon as possible,” seemingly leaving the door open for a mayoral veto of the budget. A spokesman for the mayor said Stoney did not intend to send back the council’s amended spending plan, but rather that he would boost funding for public art in future budgets.
The decision came after the lone public hearing the council held on the budget, which took place at 10:30 p.m. three days earlier. A dozen people spoke, none about the importance of public art projects, which, at that point, were not on the chopping block.
The focus for several of the speakers was city leaders’ purported top priority: Richmond Public Schools.
Not one of the council’s capital or general fund amendments increases funding for the school division.
As it stands, RPS will receive a $12.4 million one-time boost in operating money, which cannot practically go toward recurring expenses such as launching sustained initiatives or hiring staff. The School Board also asked for $31 million for maintenance projects, but is slated to receive $1.5 million, under a proposal Stoney put forward and the council left intact. An additional $150 million in financing is planned for school construction.
Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman and a former School Board member, argued against giving schools more capital dollars because she said the system is sitting on money that’s gone unspent as administrators and advocates lobby for more.
An accounting RPS provided the council on its last day of deliberations showed the school system had $13.7 million for engineering and design, but only about $881,000 for maintenance on the books as of the end of March.
The amount was less than what the Stoney administration had provided the council in its budget proposal at the beginning of March, signaling a breakdown in communication between the school system, the administration and the council.
The council agreed to include a text amendment in the capital budget that would require RPS to submit quarterly reports of year-to-date spending on capital projects in the upcoming fiscal year. Councilman Parker Agelasto of the 5th District lamented that the discrepancy led the council astray during its deliberations.
“Some believed there was $13 million for school maintenance and yet there may only be $900,000,” Agelasto said. “I find that very upsetting, that bad information, misinformation has led the council down a path that it may not have pursued. That’s troubling when we’re the governing body.”
Michael Jones, the 9th District councilman who chairs the Education and Human Services Standing Committee, said he didn’t think his colleagues had done enough to meet the school division’s needs. Agelasto and Jones were the only two who supported diverting the public art money for school maintenance.
“I don’t know if there’s enough trust on council,” Jones said. “Just some of the stuff I heard, ‘If schools does this, then we’ll look at it.’ I’m of the sort that we should give them the money they need and let them figure it out.”