As deliberations on Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s budget proposal descended into chaos Wednesday, six members of the City Council voted to pursue hiring outside counsel, a step that could lead to a lawsuit pitting the city’s legislative body against the mayor’s administration.
“We’re in a crisis here,” said Council Vice President Chris Hilbert.
The decision came at the end of a contentious seven-hour hearing on Stoney’s $757 million spending plan, after the administration reneged on a commitment to certify up to $9 million in new revenue from rising property assessments and the collection of delinquent real estate taxes.
The money would help the council, which controls the city’s purse strings, balance the budget with a real estate tax rate of $1.20 per $100 of assessed value, a course five council members have said they want to take. Stoney proposed a 9-cent hike to the rate for the fiscal year beginning July 1. No council members support his increase at this point.
Chief Administrative Officer Selena Cuffee-Glenn informed the council of the shift after council members moved to adopt an across-the-board cut to city departments in an effort to save $7.5 million. The announcement struck several on the council as retaliatory when it happened, and Cuffee-Glenn offered no further explanation for the sudden change.
When asked by a council member why the administration changed its mind on the revenues, Cuffee-Glenn did not respond directly. Instead, she extended an invitation to Council President Cynthia Newbille and Hilbert to meet with Stoney privately to discuss next steps.
Neither agreed to the meeting, as others on the council objected to any closed-door discussions on the budget between the council leadership and the administration.
The situation and corresponding fallout derailed the session, with council members sharply criticizing Stoney and Cuffee-Glenn. Soon after, she walked out of the meeting with a cadre of city administrators behind her, leaving a stunned council with a mostly empty chamber and an $11 million hole remaining in the budget.
The council briefly recessed as some of its members shouted at the departing city administrators and at one other. Newbille attempted to regain order and figure out whether to continue reviewing the budget or adjourn for the day.
“There are childish antics going on,” said 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, one of the five council members who opposed Stoney’s proposed hike to the real estate tax rate.
City Attorney Allen Jackson told council members he could not take part if the council ultimately decides to pursue legal action. Jackson is hired by the council, but his office also advises and represents the administration on legal matters. The conversation turned to hiring outside counsel. A vote followed.
Supporting the decision were 1st District Councilman Andreas Addison; Gray; Hilbert; 4th District Councilwoman Kristen Larson; 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto; and 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell.
Hours after the council ended its meeting, Stoney sent the body a memo stating that some of the cuts the council was mulling “would impair” the administration’s ability to collect new revenues.
The memo laid out conditions it must meet before he reassessed the decision to not certify the revenues. Those conditions are formal acknowledgments from the city attorney and city assessor about the dollars in question, as well as more details on the across-the-board cut the council adopted, according to the memo. The memo does not make mention of the council vote on outside legal counsel.
“While I do not agree with the proposed cuts — and my administration will work expeditiously to assess their impacts on city services and revenue collection — it is my hope that we can work together to resolve any outstanding issues and produce a balanced budget that provides needed investments to deliver the services and city government our residents deserve,” Stoney stated in a separate email to the council.
What transpired at the end of Wednesday’s session cast a pall over earlier deliberations that saw the council agree to spare a top priority Stoney identified in his budget: new funding for Richmond Public Schools’ day-to-day operations.
Two days after education advocates turned out in force to support millions in new funding for city schools, the council withdrew amendments cutting the mayor’s $18 million allocation to the school system. The decision preserves money for teacher raises and Superintendent Jason Kamras’ strategic plan.
The council opted to put money earmarked for the plan into a special fund. The step means the Stoney administration will have to introduce rolling budget amendments throughout the year for the school system to receive the money. Council members said the approach would promote accountability in how RPS spends the dollars.
The council also withdrew amendments that would have reduced funding for paving and sidewalk projects Stoney has said are long overdue.
In a blow to the mayor’s proposal, the council voted to remove $965,000 in new funding for the GRTC Transit System. Officials said the money would pay for a new route in the East End and longer hours for two routes in South Richmond.
However, leaving funding for schools and roads intact represented a compromise to some on the council, making Cuffee-Glenn’s announcement on revenue certification even more surprising.
“I have a hard time understanding why we’re at this point,” Addison said. “We have funded every priority asked of us with minimal cuts.”
The 1.5 percent across-the-board cut the council supported spared certain departments, including police, fire and the Department of Social Services.
Hilbert, who proposed it, agreed to exclude them after department leaders detailed how the cuts would hurt their operations. For example, interim Police Chief Will Smith said the sum would be equivalent to eliminating 19 positions.
Cuffee-Glenn lobbied the council members against making any wholesale cut to operations, which she said would hurt the administration’s ability to deliver services to residents.
“It’s not about the sky falling,” Cuffee-Glenn said. “We want to do a good job every single day.”
But a majority of the council took the step anyway, making what amounted to the biggest reduction to Stoney’s budget to that point. Shortly after, a majority also voted to cut $3 million for retirement incentive packages against the administration’s advice.
When Cuffee-Glenn returned as the council shifted its attention to funding for vacant positions in city departments, she shared the decision about the revenues.
At that point, the council was roughly $2 million away from balancing the budget at a real estate tax rate of $1.20 per $100 of assessed value. What she announced meant it would in fact need to cut $11 million to balance the budget at that rate.
Some on the council said the decision was indicative of what they view as a my-way-or-the-highway approach the Stoney administration has employed through the budget process.
“They got everything they wanted except the tax increase and it still wasn’t good enough,” Hilbert said. He added: “I haven’t seen this kind of dysfunction since Mayor Wilder was here.”
Council members also sparred among themselves during the session. In one exchange, Gray challenged Newbille, the council president, over the order of the body’s deliberations. The process saw the council vote down amendments that could help balance the budget before its members determined a real estate tax rate — the largest revenue source.
“This process is working us toward a tax increase and I object,” Gray said.
Newbille struck a conciliatory note after the meeting when asked about what had unfolded.
“Figuring out how to work together is incumbent on us all.”
The council’s next scheduled budget meeting is Monday.