Winners and losers

Mayor Levar M. Stoney offers details of his $1.42B, 2-year budget plan

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/9/2018, 7:09 a.m.
High school students would be able ride GRTC buses without charge on an unlimited basis for a year. After-school programs ...
Mayor Stoney Photo by Sandra Sellars

High school students would be able ride GRTC buses without charge on an unlimited basis for a year.

After-school programs for city youths would be expanded by enabling six city recreation centers to stay open longer and through support for programs offered by the YMCA, the YWCA and several other youth-serving groups.

Inmates in the Richmond Justice Center no longer would face a $2 a day fee for being housed there.

And Richmond residents could see their water bills drop up to $16 a month.

These are some of the highlights of the budget plan that Mayor Levar M. Stoney presented to City Council on Tuesday. The proposals listed above would go into effect July 1 if the council approves them.

Council President Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District, though cautious about endorsing the entire plan, expressed enthusiasm for two of the mayor’s initiatives, including the proposal to pay an extra $1.15 million to GRTC to pay for “bus passes for our high school students to go to after-school programs, libraries, jobs, etc. and extension of the hours our community centers will be open.”

“These two initiatives will have long-term benefits for our city,” he said.

Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell also was supportive of a 1 percent pay increase the mayor proposed for city workers and the potential reduction in the water charge. However, she was disappointed that the mayor wants to suspend a career development program that boosts pay for participating police and firefighters.

The mayor presented a two-year, $1.42 billion budget plan, but most of the focus for the council and others will be on the spending plan for fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1.

For that year, the plan calls for spending $715.27 million in general operating funds — or about $3,208 per person living in the city. The city’s budget for fiscal 2019 actually totals more than $1.6 billion when schools, utilities, grants and other items are included.

The budget proposal for general operations represents a $23 million increase from the current 2017-2018 budget of $691 million, or about $3,100 per city resident.

However, a major share of the increase stems from the mayor’s decision to take $12.5 million in surplus that Richmond Public Schools accumulated from fiscal year 2017 that ended June 30. The mayor proposes to return that money to schools to use in 2018-2019.

Revenue also is going up because of the $9 million expected to be generated from a 1.5 percent increase in the city’s meals tax that was approved Feb. 12. The meals tax hike goes into effect July 1. That money is earmarked to pay for borrowing $150 million for construction of at least four new schools.

Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras expressed disappointment that the School Board’s call for an $11 million increase in city spending on education was rejected and that the only new funds would be the money the schools previously didn’t spend.

He said if the council does not intervene, the mayor’s decision would interfere with RPS’ plans to upgrade service to English language learners, to eliminate bus hubs by adding more school buses and to provide more robust educational experiences for all students.

Mr. Kamras also was unhappy with the mayor’s plan to provide only $1.5 million for maintenance of the aging inventory of schools in 2018-2019 and $12.9 million over the next five years. That’s less than half of the $31 million the School Board requested through 2023.

The mayor noted after his speech that RPS still has $13 million for maintenance that it received in previous years but has not used. He said given the city’s financial challenges, he cannot allow RPS to sit on money while calling for additional funding.

In his 30-minute address, Mayor Stoney bemoaned the hard choices he and his administration had to make to produce “a fiscally responsible and very lean budget.”

Overall, city revenue is flat and not keeping pace with city needs, he said, even though revenues from the tax on real estate are projected to rise by 5 percent in 2018-2019 because of property value increases in the Fan, Scott’s Addition and other parts of the city.

He noted that a five-year forecast his staff presented in January depicted the gloomy revenue outlook. Even with the proposed initiatives, he said “reductions were made throughout this proposed budget” but not “at the detriment of core services.”

However, Mayor Stoney’s plan calls for creating two new departments at City Hall — one to focus on customer service and the other to focus on affordable housing and community development.

While the new departments largely come out of a shift in existing resources, his plan would require money, including adding high-paid directors to lead the departments.

For example, under the mayor’s plan, the new Housing and Community Development Department would come largely from breaking up the current Economic and Community Development Department, streamlining that department to solely focus on attracting and retaining businesses.

The winners in the plan appear to be city youths, utility customers and city employees.

While the mayor’s plan provides extra money to GRTC to ensure high school students ride free, his plan drops the $190,000 subsidy the city provided GRTC for reduced fares for senior citizens.

Under the budget plan, residential water use would be shifted to a conservation-focused billing approach that would charge more to people who use more water. Customers would not be charged for the first 400 cubic feet of water used each month. Four hundred cubic feet of water is equivalent to 2,992 gallons. Currently, residents pay $4.04 for each 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons.

Mayor Stoney said overall utility bills would be affected by a separate 3.25 percent increase in the cost of natural gas service, which is expected to increase the monthly service charge for gas 42 cents to $13.40 monthly.

Still, he told council that the savings on water is expected to cut utility bills $3.70 a month on average, the first such decline “in many years.”

City employees also would gain. The mayor’s plan would provide general city employees with a 1 percent pay hike effective Jan. 1, 2019. Some employees would get more based on a compensation study. The raises, though small, would be the first in three years.

The mayor also promised a similar 1 percent pay hike in 2019-2020 and additional pay changes based on the study.

Mayor Stoney also proposed a new benefit for city workers: Four weeks of paid maternity leave and four weeks of leave for employees who adopt a child. Employees also could receive two weeks of paid leave to care for a sick parents under the mayor’s proposal.

In addition, the mayor is moving to continue improving salaries for police officers and firefighters, council’s top priority.

He proposes to spend $3.1 million in fiscal year 2019 and $7.9 million in fiscal year 2020 to “continue step increases to address pay inequities” for both police and firefighters. The combined $11 million is still $1.6 million short of the $12.6 million the council urged him to spend on the effort.

The mayor added other items, including a proposed boost in starting pay for police and firefighters to $43,000 a year.

The mayor also called on the council to fund four new police positions to work in public housing communities and to allow the police department to hire five civilians to handle outreach programs for the department.

Under his plan, the city’s subsidy for the Richmond Ambulance Authority would grow by $600,000, while the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, the city’s mental health, mental retardation and substance abuse agency, would gain $733,000 in extra city funds to deal with the opioid epidemic.

The mayor said the city’s the budget challenges will continue.

“There are no quick fixes,” he told the council. “So whether it is City Council or the School Board, we must have a shared commitment in making the hard choices, the right choices, that will put us on track to make a real difference in the lives of city residents.”