Seeing Richmond residents like 78-year-old Shirley Perkins step up and mow the grass the city can’t, or won’t, is inspiring. Yet we’re torn between giving them a standing ovation and begging them to stop.
They are doing the city a wonderful service. The tall grass is unsightly and dispiriting. (It’s also a big help to ticks, which are nasty and unpleasant even when they don’t carry debilitating ailments like Lyme disease.) The volunteers are showing real public-spiritedness, and should be commended for it.
They also might be undercutting (sorry) Mayor Dwight Jones’ Washington Monument ploy. That’s a common trick officials use in budget disputes; it entails shutting down the most visible and popular services first, as a means of bringing public pressure to bear on the other side.
Jones is displeased with the City Council, which scraped together a few extra million for the school system over his objections. Shortly after it did so, the city administration announced it would sharply curtail mowing on city property.
The mayor is not necessarily wrong about the school system’s financing; Richmond spends more per pupil than surrounding jurisdictions, with less to show for it, and consolidating half-empty buildings could free up badly needed funds to fix the rest.
At the same time, City Hall seems to have an issue with bloat itself. As we noted several weeks ago, Richmond spends $273 per resident on general government administration; the statewide average is $159. And that is not an anomaly: Compared with other localities, Richmond generally spends more per resident on public safety, health, welfare and planning. Yet despite all the money, some departments — the finance and social service departments in particular — are almost completely dysfunctional.
It will take a Herculean effort to clean out those Augean stables, but doing so could make a world of difference in city operations. Unfortunately, Jones has mostly focused on shiny baubles such as the Redskins training camp and a new baseball stadium. Those are nice, but they don’t mow the grass.
And that’s what makes the volunteer effort by Richmond residents — meritorious as it is — a trifle problematic: It’s like fixing up a drug addict’s house for him. The gesture is noble; the house looks better; the neighbors will be grateful. But it insulates the addict from the consequences of his behavior, and therefore enables him to continue acting irresponsibly. That’s bad for the addict and everyone else. It’s even worse if the addict starts to expect such help as a matter of course.
The Richmond city government needs to demonstrate to residents it has its act together. We’re grateful to the volunteer mowers who are helping it out. We just hope they don’t help too much for too long.