Early last month, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney unveiled his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal. The ambitious $758 million plan — it calls for increasing the city’s real estate tax by 9 cents, imposes a first-ever city cigarette tax of 50 cents per pack and raises utility rates that would average about $6 per household — received a less than exuberant reception.
The tax and utility increases would bring in $24 million in new revenue that the mayor wants to give to Richmond Public Schools and use on long overdue repairs to city roads and sidewalks.
Stoney’s request for more taxes comes on the heels of January’s effective tax increase when city property assessments rose about 8.3%. And, just last year, City Council approved his request for a 1.5% increase in Richmond’s meals tax. So, it’s not surprising that his request generated reactions similar to Councilwoman Reva Trammell’s. She stood up moments after the mayor first presented it and tersely asked, “Mayor, you said you were not going to raise taxes when you ran for mayor. How can you stand up here, and before all of us, do this to the people?”
Are the new increases justified? That RPS is in desperate need of improvements is indisputable. That much of the city’s roads and infrastructure are in dire need of improvement also is a well-established fact. But are there financial shortages because the city doesn’t have enough operating funds or because the money on hand is being mismanaged by a dysfunctional, poorly performing city government?
Residents across the city have shared their opinions of the plan on these pages. Overwhelmingly, they are not in favor of the new taxes. In an attempt to better understand the issue, we spoke to concerned city residents, City Council members and former school teachers, as well as the mayor and top members of his team. We attended one of the mayor’s town halls and met with RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras.
The more people we spoke to, the more it became apparent to us that simply increasing the city’s budget is not likely to produce the results that Stoney — and Kamras — are touting. Systemic problems within both city management and RPS should be addressed before Richmond residents are asked to give up more of their hard-earned dollars.
The city needs to be accountable for its past mismanagement. Explain to residents which of the major recommendations made in the city’s 2017 performance review requested by Stoney have been implemented — and if not, why and when will they be. Or why have no serious changes been made to address the city’s overspending in areas outlined in the 2018 city auditor’s report that shows what Richmond spends?
And when it comes to RPS, as one opponent of the proposed taxes noted, hard decisions and decisive actions need to be taken. Dilapidated, half-empty schools must be closed and serious consolidation efforts undertaken. Both the culture and climate within RPS need to be addressed. We spoke with a group of concerned, deeply involved citizens who suggested that RPS suffers from intrinsic personnel and financial mismanagement and both should be audited and held accountable.
In fairness, others — especially Kamras and former teachers — assured us that RPS needs every penny Stoney can send it. There aren’t enough teachers, custodians, counselors or bus drivers to meet the needs of students in high-poverty schools. There are never enough computers, learning tools or classroom supplies to meet needs. The anecdotes and descriptions we heard of RPS’ challenges were often heartbreaking. Of the new money that would be raised through the tax hikes, $18 million would go toward city schools and fully fund its budget request. Kamras has taken steps to streamline the number of central office jobs.
It would help if City Council showed some leadership. Last year, the council made no cuts to the mayor’s budget, which passed unanimously. This year, five of the council’s nine members have indicated they want to keep the real estate tax rate where it is — the region’s highest at $1.20 per $100 of assessed value — and have been discussing possible alternatives. Council members also are deliberating whether to increase or decrease the mayor’s proposed tax rates on cigarettes. But we have to wonder if taxing a product made by a longtime corporate citizen that’s contributed so much to the economy is the right course to take.
We know the city and schools face challenges. But we don’t believe that this mayor, or any other, should continue to charge Richmond’s citizenry for city government’s past failures before making sure sound management is in place.
— Pamela Stallsmith and Robin Beres