A majority of Richmond voters say they’d support a tax increase to build and repair city schools but are opposed to any public money going to support the construction of a new coliseum, according to a poll conducted by Christopher Newport University on behalf of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Regionwide, the poll found city and county voters also are opposed to using existing public money to construct a new baseball stadium to replace The Diamond.
“I am really surprised by the level of support to increase taxes to pay for schools,” said Quentin Kidd, who oversaw the poll and directs CNU’s Wason Center for Public Policy. “Especially in the context of how little support there is for the coliseum and baseball stadium. This is Richmonders basically saying, look, these are our priorities.”
Of survey respondents in Richmond, 64 percent said they’d support a tax increase for new and renovated city schools while 30 percent said they would oppose a tax increase.
The poll was conducted Sept. 22-28. Of 644 interviews, 340 registered voters in the city and 304 registered voters in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties were surveyed.
The margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points for regionwide questions and plus or minus 5.3 percentage points for questions on which only city residents were polled.
The dilapidated and ever-deteriorating state of Richmond Public Schools facilities has been at the front of public debate in the city for years.
Mayor Levar Stoney polled voters himself on the issue before crafting his first budget proposal this year, but he did not call for raising taxes for schools, saying at the time he believed voters first wanted to see that the city could do a good job with the money it already collects.
The RPS facilities issue has been cast in increasingly dire terms. With the city’s capacity to take out more bonds essentially maxed out for the next five years, advisers have said a tax increase would be necessary to fund any short-term construction.
Stoney has not publicly proposed a tax increase, but he committed to presenting a plan to the council as a part of his next budget proposal that funds school infrastructure improvements.
“The mayor believes we need to take action sooner rather than later to address the needs of our school facilities,” Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan wrote in an email. “He is committed to working with the School Board and City Council through the RVA Education Compact to develop a comprehensive funding plan to modernize school facilities, and believes all options should be on the table.”
Richmond City Council members reached Wednesday said they were open to discussing the prospect of a tax increase to fix up schools.
“There are certain tax increases, like a cigarette tax or admissions tax, which could be considered before having to increase the real estate tax rate, but they’re all certainly a part of a matrix that needs to assessed,” said Parker Agelasto, the 5th District representative.
Council President Chris Hilbert called the broad support for a tax increase indicated in the poll “encouraging,” but said he would not support hiking the city’s real estate tax rate. At $1.20 per $100 of assessed value, Richmond residents pay a higher rate on real estate taxes than residents in the surrounding counties.
Chesterfield County residents pay 96 cents per $100 of assessed value. Henrico County residents pay 87 cents per $100 of assessed value. Hanover County residents pay 81 cents per $100 of assessed value.
“Increasing that rate to me is not palatable. ... I don’t want to put us at a further disadvantage,” Hilbert said.
Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman and a former School Board member, said a tax increase isn’t at the top of her list for fixing facilities, especially as the city’s existing tax revenue is trending upward across the board.
“We would have to exhaust all other options before we even move towards a tax increase,” Gray said.
Coliseum, baseball and transit
Respondents took a dimmer view of public money going toward other big-ticket municipal projects.
Although no firm plans have been developed, a private group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II has been pursuing plans to replace the Richmond Coliseum. If those plans come to fruition, a majority of city voters (65 percent) said they would oppose using existing public money to pay for it.
And 73 percent of city and county voters opposed the use of public money to replace the city’s minor league baseball stadium, The Diamond. There has been no recent news on plans for a new stadium, but the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the city and Virginia Commonwealth University have said they’re continuing to work behind the scenes on the project.
Nolan, the mayor’s spokesman, said the administration would not “speculate on proposals that do not exist,” but that neither project ranked among Stoney’s budget priorities.
Council members expressed similar sentiments, saying that schools should take precedent over either capital project.
“I just don’t think the Coliseum or The Diamond are a priority if we are looking at how we spend our public funds right now,” said Kristen Larson, the 4th District representative. “The survey seems to reflect what I’m hearing in my community right now.”
City and county voters were split on whether they would support a tax increase to pay for an expanded regional public transportation network, with slightly more (49 percent) saying they are opposed. More city residents (50 percent) said they would support such an initiative than county residents (40 percent).
One voter surveyed as part of the poll said that while he could support a tax increase for schools, there are too many other needs in the city to set aside money for things like stadiums and coliseums.
“There have been a lot of follies in Richmond. We had the 6th Street Marketplace, and I’m still questioning the wisdom behind the Pulse, so it just seems like money is being spent maybe in areas where if it had been on the agenda, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” said David Lawler, a 68-year-old Museum District resident who was surveyed as part of the poll.
Asked if they approve or disapprove of Stoney’s job performance since he took office at the beginning of the year, 63 percent of city voters said they approve while 19 percent said they disapprove.
That’s a tremendous bump over the 26 percent job approval rating an August 2016 survey recorded for then-Mayor Dwight C. Jones.
“There are probably hundreds of mayors across the country that would love to have that kind of approval rating,” Kidd said, noting the many public appearances Stoney makes. “At some point, we’ll get past the honeymoon period, but to the extent that people want to see youthful, energetic leadership, they’re getting it in him and they’re rewarding him for that in his approval rating.”
Opinion of the City Council and School Board, however, remains unchanged since last year’s survey: 37 percent of city voters said they approve of the way the current council is handling its job, and 24 percent of voters said they approve of the way the School Board is handling its job.
“City Council, they’re so busy arguing with each other, they don’t get anything done,” said Florence Blue, a 50-year-old Carytown resident and one of the survey respondents who said she approved of the mayor and disapproved of the council. “The mayor is cleaning up a lot of mess that’s been there a long time before he got there, and he goes out in the community and spends time. That’s something I didn’t see the other mayor doing.”
Hilbert, the council president, said although the mayor’s high marks are well-deserved, judging the council’s performance as a body is more difficult.
“I certainly appreciate that there’s room for improvement. … We’ll continue to work hard and win more of the confidence of the citizens of Richmond,” Hilbert said.
Outlook for Richmond area mixed
Regionwide, residents are split on whether the area is heading in the right direction, with 42 percent saying right, 16 percent saying mixed, and 39 percent saying wrong.
A majority (55 percent) of respondents said the city’s relationship with the counties is acceptable, while 23 percent called it good and 17 percent called it poor.
“Basically, there’s nothing going on that’s making people think everything is going great,” Kidd said. “And there’s nothing going on to make people think the relationship is in the toilet.”