Slavery memorial to gain in capital budget plan

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/7/2015, 10:49 a.m.
The battle over the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom apparently is over. At the same time, hopes are fading for Richmond ...

The battle over the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom apparently is over.

At the same time, hopes are fading for Richmond Public Schools to gain funding to develop essential new schools on South Side to relieve overcrowding.

However, the city will buy new voting machines.

These are among the results of City Council’s decisions in reshaping Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ capital spending plan for the next five years — the city plan that deals with everything from sidewalks to building needs and construction projects, including utility work.

The total capital budget — $775 million — would begin July 1, which is the beginning of fiscal year 2016, and be in effect through fiscal year 2020.

City Council put the final touches on its amendments to the mayor’s capital budget plan on Monday, and will introduce the changes Friday, May 8. Council then will vote on the changes Friday, May 15, as part of finalizing the budget that will go into effect July 1.

In a rebuff to Mayor Jones, City Council acted Monday to gut the capital plan once set aside to pay for essential, underground flood-control pipes and plumbing. A Shockoe Bottom stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels and associated developments could not be built with those funds.

The mayor proposed to move the minor league team to a new home in Shockoe Bottom in late 2013, but pulled the proposal six months later after failing to secure council support.

More than $12 million was set aside in the capital budget last year for potential underground infrastructure work in a four-block area. However, the appropriation has gone nowhere since the mayor pulled the plan. None of the money was ever borrowed.

The mayor and his staff refuse to say the project is dead. But the loss of the money means that the dollars to pay for piping to allow use of the property located in a flood plain no longer is available.

About $2 million the council left in that part of the capital plan is earmarked for flood plain piping needed to help create the proposed memorial site remembering Richmond’s role as a major slavery center before Union victory in the Civil War 150 years ago ended the buying and selling of human beings.

In addition, the council also agreed to provide an extra $3 million to support development of the heritage site, adding to the $5 million previously appropriated by the city and up to $11 million appropriated by the state.

In preparing its version of the budget, members of the council heard pleas from the school system for up to $100 million for new schools for the surging school population in South Side, and funds to maintain current buildings.

Thomas Kranz, associate schools superintendent for support services, said a $35 million elementary school capable of accommodating up to 1,000 youngsters would be needed within two years, while a $50 million middle school capable of serving 1,200 students would be needed within three to four years to prevent severe overcrowding.

He said the new buildings would allow the closure of at least four old buildings, including the Thompson and Elkhardt middle school buildings.

He also urged council to provide $10 million to $12 million to build an addition to an elementary school on South Side to expand classroom space and move to close an aging school on that side of the river.

Facing shrinking limits on the city’s ability to borrow, the council in the end agreed to set aside only $18 million for those projects over the next five years.

The $18 million would be enough only to build the elementary school addition and to pay for designs for new elementary and middle schools, Mr. Kranz said.

Even that money came with a price. The mayor proposed $13 million a year in each of the next two years for maintenance on aging school buildings. However, the council cut that to $8 million a year after talking with Mr. Kranz.

Meanwhile, the council included $613,000 for the purchase of new voting machines to replace more than 400 aging machines that the state has banned. That money adds to more than $600,000 council shifted to the city Voter Registrar’s Office to pay for operating expenses related to the new machines.