The only plan on the table

3/15/2019, 6 a.m.
Mayor Levar M. Stoney has presented what he calls a “bold” new budget to Richmond City Council that goes all ...

Mayor Levar M. Stoney has presented what he calls a “bold” new budget to Richmond City Council that goes all in for greater investment in public schools and road and street improvements.

His proposed 2020-21 budget, which would go into effect July 1, calls for taxes, taxes and more taxes. It includes a 9 cent hike in the city’s real estate tax rate, a 50 cent per pack local tax on cigarettes and a jump in water, gas and sewer rates.

According to the mayor, the added revenue will allow the city to pump $18.5 million more into Richmond Public Schools to fund its strategic plan, Dreams4RPS, and put $16.2 million toward improving city streets and sidewalks.

“There is no investment more important or worthwhile than the investment we make in our children,” Mayor Stoney said. “Their future is our future.”

We remind our readers that none of the mayor’s proposals are new. In March 2018, Councilman Parker C. Agelasto proposed an 80-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes, while in October, schools Superintendent Jason Kamras floated the idea of a 10 cent hike in the city’s real estate tax. Both ideas were shot down.

We supported the cigarette tax hike last year, and we support it now, even with the understanding that the $3 million it is expected to yield annually may drop over time as people stop smoking or stop purchasing cigarettes in the city.

It would be the first such tax levied on cigarettes in Richmond, whereas 92 other Virginia localities have been using a local cigarette tax to generate additional dollars for years.

We believe a tax on this unhealthy product can add to the well-being of Richmond’s schoolchildren by helping to fund critical needs.

But, we are not sold on Mayor Stoney’s real estate tax hike for several reasons. Even as the mayor has said — more money doesn’t always equate to better outcomes. And we want to see some real progress in student achievement, graduation rates and outcomes, along with greater accountability from Mr. Kamras and the School Board with the money they currently receive before Richmond taxpayers are asked to pony up more money for RPS. 

While $90 more a year for a house valued at $100,000 doesn’t sound like a lot with the mayor’s proposed tax hike, officials fail to acknowledge that many Richmond homeowners have seen their real estate assessments increase by 25 percent during the last year, pushing up their tax burden this year by an equal percentage. Adding another 9 cents to the tax rate would add insult to injury.

The onus now is on City Council to come up with a plan to both help generate more money for city schools while mitigating the tax burden on residents. City Council’s recent expansion of the tax relief program for the elderly and low-income households is a help, but not a cure-all.

Richmond currently has the highest tax rate in the region at $1.20 per $100 of assessed value. Because of the poor state of RPS, some residents flee the city for the suburbs once their children get to middle school. We don’t want to give Richmond residents another reason to leave — that the city is unaffordable.

It’s time for City Council to step up and show leadership in this regard, otherwise Mayor Stoney’s plan will be the only one on the table.