Questions abound on whether city money for slavery memorial is available

8/27/2020, 6 p.m.
Where’s the money?
Mayor Stoney

Where’s the money?

That’s the question that Mayor Levar M. Stoney and top officials in his administration have not yet answered.

On July 28, Mayor Stoney announced that $3.5 million in unused city dollars would be used to jumpstart the stalled development of a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom and to create an adjacent memorial park to the enslaved that advocates have long sought.

However, the Free Press has determined after a three-week investigation that that pot of money does not exist.

The specific account the mayor said he expected to tap for the money is tied to the City Attorney’s Office. The account does not contain $3.5 million, according to city records the Free Press obtained, and all the money in the account is earmarked for paying the city’s legal costs for selling tax delinquent properties.

The money the mayor spoke of flows into the City Attorney’s Office from the Richmond Circuit Court. The court holds any surplus money from tax sale auctions where the final price the buyer pays exceeds the tax debt and legal costs the city has assessed.

That “surplus” money is sent to the City Attorney’s Office after two years when former owners of the auctioned property fail to claim their share.

According to the records, the surplus funds the city received amount to about $95,000 in the 2017-18 fiscal year, about $27,000 in the 2018-19 fiscal year, about $1.25 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year and about $714,000 so far in the current 2020-21 fiscal year.

That money flows into a special fund the City Attorney’s Office uses to cover costs of new tax sales. And even if the account were overflowing, the mayor would not be free to use it, based on a provision of the City Charter that concerns budget amendments.

That provision states that at least six members of City Council must vote to shift money from the City Attorney’s Office for use on the slavery memorial project. That’s an unlikely prospect after a majority of City Council voted in late July to put top priority on using any spare city money to address the housing needs of low-income residents.

The $3.5 million was just to be the down payment on the slavery museum and memorial.

In his announcement, Mayor Stoney, who is seeking re-election to a second term in November, promised to include $50 million in the 2022-2025 year capi- tal budget plan he would send to City Council next March — if re-elected — to provide the substantial amount needed to get underway.

In the four weeks since the announcement, Mayor Stoney and his administration have gone silent about the development and the $3.5 million to be used primarily for design costs.

Free Press emails to the Mayor’s Office and top city officials about the money have gone unanswered.

The discovery is not sitting well with advocates who have spent years promoting the idea of transforming parking lots on two blocks in Shockoe Bottom into a memorial park to accompany the development of a museum on the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, a once horrific holding place for enslaved people who were to be auctioned.

The parking lots sit on mostly city-owned land bounded by Broad, Grace and 17th streets and the elevated railroad tracks that connect with Main Street Station.

Among those who feel let down is Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, an arm of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality.

Ms. Edwards was among the speakers at the mayor’s announcement of the slavery memorial development.

“Like everyone, the Sacred Ground Project was very happy to learn that the mayor had committed actual dollars to the Memorial Park’s establishment,” Ms. Edwards stated in response to a Free Press request for comment.

“It was disappointing to find out that is not the case,” she stated. “We are not deterred, however, and will continue to work toward the creation of the Memorial Park with our allies.”