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Mayor Stoney proposes meals tax hike to support schools

Jeremy Lazarus | 1/26/2018, 11:12 a.m.
Declaring that Richmond “is strong,” Mayor Levar M. Stoney called for “bold and courageous” action to deal with some of ...

The School Board plan called for $85 million to build a new George Wythe High, $50 million to build a new Elkhardt-Thompson Middle and $80 million to replace Greene, George Mason and Woodville elementary schools.

While School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page told the Free Press she and most of her colleagues are supportive, the mayor’s proposal, if adopted, would force the board to sideline at least some of the proposed construction.

So far Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, is the only one of the nine council members to openly endorse the mayor’s meals tax hike, although several other members hinted they could end up voting for it.

Council President Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District, for example, did not immediately endorse the mayor’s plan. However, he said that he promised only to oppose an increase in the real estate tax when he ran for re-election.

Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, 5th District, said he likely will propose alternative ideas after getting pushback from restaurant owners in Carytown who largely are opposed to bearing the cost of school improvement with a tax increase that could turn away customers.

On other fronts, Mayor Stoney promised his next budget would boost spending on after-school recreation programs for city youths and provide funding to the police department to deploy civilians to connect residents in high-crime areas with employment assistance and social services.

The mayor also vowed to devote more attention to housing issues.

Quoting Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond, Mayor Stoney said that “everything else falls apart” when people do not have safe and stable shelter.

He said he knows from personal experience “what it is like to live in a place that doesn’t have heat, where you have to keep warm by wearing your winter coat inside and turning on the stove and opening the oven door.

“No one deserves to live in that sort of environment,” he said, referencing reports of failed heating in Creighton Court and other public housing communities. “The conditions in our RRHA communities are shameful and unacceptable.”

He even apologized that “for decades, the federal, state and city governments have let our public housing residents down. For that, I am sorry. We all must do better.”

He promised to do everything “in my power as mayor to address the current issues facing RRHA and work with them toward longer-term solutions,” and called for a “full accounting of the capital, mechanical and technical issues” facing the city’s public housing communities.

He offered no specifics as to the actions a city, already strapped for resources, could take other than to say “the work is complicated’ and that change would be expensive. RRHA has indicated that it has $150 million in deferred maintenance.

At best, Mayor Stoney called for a partnership with residents in public housing.

He also acknowledged that rising home prices and apartment rents are leaving too many people strapped to cover housing costs.

He called for the creation of 1,500 new affordable housing units over five years with the help of private and nonprofit developers, and said City Hall would retool its housing and community development functions “to put more focus on and bring more resources to bear” to accomplish that goal.

The mayor said the coming year will see the completion of the new bus rapid transit system and improvements in bus service; completion of the overhaul of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, a renewed effort to consider redevelopment of the city’s 60-acre Boulevard property; and fresh consideration of proposals to bring a new coliseum to Downtown.

He also promised that the city would take steps to preserve and protect areas of Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Valley to ensure that the enslaved men and women who built Richmond would be remembered and properly commemorated.

With plenty on the city’s plate, the mayor wrapped up the 40-minute speech with a rousing conclusion:

“I ask you again to join me in banishing the doubt and defeatism that have long impeded the progress of this great city on the big issues, and to be bold and courageous in embracing the positive promise of what we can accomplish this year, working together.”