Richmond City Council members are divided on Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to fund construction of new city schools by hiking the meals tax.
Last week, Stoney proposed a 1.5 percentage point bump to the tax to generate an estimated $9.1 million per year. The new revenue would allow the city to borrow up to $150 million in the next five years to fund school construction and renovations by expanding its limited debt capacity, a hindrance that would defer action on school improvements until 2023, Stoney said.
Ninth District Councilman Michael Jones and 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson say they support the mayor’s plan.
“I think we need to look at ways to find revenue to build quality schools that are equipped for learning, and I do think we need to find a source of revenue to make that a reality,” said Robertson, adding that she was also open to alternative funding sources for school construction.
Meanwhile, 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray and 1st District Councilman Andreas Addison oppose the plan, with Addison adding that he could not support increasing taxes to support what he views as an incomplete schools plan.
“I don’t think exploring taxes as the first option is the best one,” Addison said. “I think we can try and find efficiencies, make cuts and look at other sources of funding before we look at tax increases.”
The mayor announced the proposal about a month after the Richmond School Board endorsed a $224.8 million plan to replace some of the division’s overcrowded and dilapidated buildings. Stoney’s proposal would leave a $74 million gap in funding for the plan, but School Board leaders have praised it.
If the Richmond City Council signs off on the mayor’s proposal, the city’s meals tax would increase from 6 percent to 7.5 percent. Currently, the combined sales and city meals tax is 11.3 percent. The mayor’s proposal would increase it to 12.8 percent.
Council President Chris Hilbert and 4th District Councilwoman Kristen Larson both said they were open to increasing the tax for schools.
Larson, a former School Board member, offered a caveat, though. She previously served on the board that approved a now-shelved improvement plan to build new schools, renovate others and close some to eliminate open seats in the division, an approach that would free up operating dollars that could be redirected to the classroom.
The new $224.8 million plan adopted by the School Board in December does not address consolidation and rezoning, said Larson, echoing a point raised by a majority of council members in separate interviews about the plan.
“Even if the meals tax were to move forward under the proposal, it’s not an endless — it’s a bump, but it’s not necessarily all that they’re asking for right now,” Larson said. “And I think that it’s important for them to be mindful and look for efficiencies in our school facilities.”
Jones, the 9th District councilman, in a statement expressing his support for the tax increase, pointed to overcrowding at schools in South Richmond. The school division has projected steady growth in enrollment south of the James for the past several years.
While redistricting must occur in tandem with new construction to alleviate the issue, Jones said, it will only get worse if city leaders do not act now.
“The majority of the city’s population growth is taking place on the South Side, and we need help accommodating that growth,” Jones said.
Reva Trammell, who represents the 8th District in South Richmond, said she had not made up her mind about the mayor’s plan, but she was hearing “a lot of negative feedback about it” from residents and business owners.
Parker Agelasto, the 5th District councilman, said he, too, was undecided on the proposal, but that before any decision is made to increase taxes, the council needs to examine other possible revenue sources.
“There are a lot of other options that have not been discussed in a full, complete conversation before the Education Compact or whatever vehicle we’re going to use to have that conversation,” Agelasto said.
Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman, agreed, saying that she opposed hiking the tax because she believed the city could identify $9 million in cuts to the budget without placing the burden on restaurateurs.
“I don’t think we’ve done our homework,” Gray said.
Cynthia Newbille, the council’s vice president and 7th District representative, declined to comment on the plan until it is formally introduced at a special council meeting scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Monday at the Richmond Police Training Academy, 1202 W. Graham Road. At 6 p.m., a joint meeting with Stoney, the council and the School Board will take place at the same location, where the proposal will be discussed.