Stoney at town hall

Mayor Levar Stoney hosted a town hall about his proposed budget and tax increases at Woodville Elementary School in the city’s East End on March 19.

Full funding for Richmond Public Schools.

Millions of dollars for long overdue paving projects.

A 3 percent raise for city workers.

The top priorities in Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s budget proposal are expected to win approval from the City Council on Monday night, and all without the 9-cent real estate tax increase the mayor said was necessary to pay for them.

Stoney’s budget proposal included two tax hikes: a new 50-cent-per-pack levy on cigarettes and a 9-cent increase to the real estate tax rate from $1.20 to $1.29 per $100 of assessed value. The first won backing from the majority of the council, but the second was a nonstarter for the nine-member body that controls the city’s purse strings.

To balance its budget without the real estate tax hike, the council relied on higher-than-expected real estate tax revenue from growing assessments as well as higher delinquent tax collections. The council also slashed $2 million in funding for vacant positions and cut $7.5 million in proposed cash spending on capital projects.

Stoney said the revenues from the higher assessments were not reflected in his $757 million spending plan because he was not aware of them; the city assessor works for the council and provided updated figures after Stoney unveiled his budget in early March.

Monday’s council vote on the $746 million amended budget that will take effect on July 1 will bring to a close the most heated budget process of Stoney’s roughly 2½-year tenure as mayor.

Despite his failure to sell the council on his approach, Stoney called the end result a victory for residents.

“Yes, it was a contentious process, but at the end of the day, we came to a resolution and I’m very, very happy about that resolution,” Stoney said in an interview, citing the council’s decisions to preserve new spending he proposed.

That includes $18 million for Richmond Public Schools’ strategic plan and teacher raises and an additional $19 million in capital spending for maintenance at the school system’s buildings; $16.2 million for road and sidewalk projects; $2.9 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund; roughly $800,000 in new funding for the GRTC Transit System; and $485,000 for a pilot eviction diversion program.

What Stoney has hailed as a compromise representing victory didn’t come easily. His proposal for a real estate tax hike to generate $21 million in new revenue instantly drove a wedge between the mayor and some members of the council.

He had hardly concluded his initial pitch in March when 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell lashed out at him before a roomful of city administrators. She criticized Stoney for proposing the tax hike without owning property in the city, drawing a round of criticism of her own for how she addressed the mayor and her implication that renters would not also pay the cost of a tax hike.

The dispute foreshadowed more squabbles between the council and the administration as deliberations unfolded. Conflict is common in Richmond’s annual budget process, but this year’s version was amplified by the council’s opposition to Stoney’s real estate tax hike.

Undeterred by the pushback on his plan, Stoney launched what amounted to a campaign for it, hosting four town halls and making personal pitches at small gatherings around the city.

At the town halls, he delivered a stump speech laying out his case for the tax hike, which he referred to as rolling back Great Recession-era tax cuts. The tax rate was last $1.29 in 2007. The budgets in the decade since then — vetted by some of the council members whose support he needed for his own proposal — were built on “dishonesty and disinvestment,” he told those who attended the events.

The town halls gave Stoney a chance to drum up public support for his plan and pressure the council members opposing it to reconsider their position.

A public hearing the council held on the budget last month saw dozens turn out and lobby for fully funding schools. Several council members had proposed smaller increases to school funding than Stoney in an effort to cut spending, but they dropped those amendments after the show of public support at the hearing.

Stoney’s approach in promoting his plan didn’t sit well with some council members.

“The PR campaign chastising us if we did not approve the real estate tax increase was not helpful,” said Kristen Larson, the 4th District councilwoman.

The council deferred a decision on the tax rate until the tail end of its two months of deliberations, opting instead to first debate amendments its members proposed. When those conversations turned to cuts, tensions boiled over.

An across-the-board cut to city departments to save $7.5 million faced stiff opposition from the administration. Chief Administrative Officer Selena Cuffee-Glenn — Stoney’s top administrator — said the cuts would hinder City Hall’s ability to provide services to residents.

After a majority of the council supported the cuts, Cuffee-Glenn told the council the administration would not certify more than $9 million in revenues from higher real estate tax assessments and the collection of overdue taxes from the sale of tax-delinquent properties sold at auction. Faced with sharp criticism from some on the council, Cuffee-Glenn and dozens of other city administrators walked out of the meeting.

A frustrated council then voted to pursue outside legal counsel, a move that could have led to an intra-City Hall court fight over the revenues in question.

Instead, Stoney walked back Cuffee-Glenn’s threat in a memo sent to the council later that night, requesting additional information and effectively defusing the situation. Ultimately, he agreed to certify the revenues, and the council used them to balance its amended plan without hiring a lawyer.

Stoney declined to say whether he directed Cuffee-Glenn and other administrators to walk out of the meeting.

“I’m not going to share my conversations with the CAO with the press,” he said. “I’m just not going to do that.”

Councilman Michael Jones of the 9th District, who originally supported the mayor’s proposed real estate tax hike, said he didn’t think either the council or the administration acted professionally at points during the budget deliberations.

“There should be a mutual level of respect. Everyone is trying to do a job,” Jones said. “A lot of times you don’t hear that and that’s frustrating.”

The council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday. It will hold a public hearing on the budget before a final vote.

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