Richmonders want funding for schools, housing, less gas

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/30/2023, 6 p.m.
Fund the full request for Richmond Public Schools. Improve our parks. Fully fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and fund ...
Mayor Stoney

Fund the full request for Richmond Public Schools. Improve our parks. Fully fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and fund repairs for decaying mobile homes. Protect the environment by planning for elimination of the city’s gas utility.

Those were among the ways that least 20 speakers urged City Council to amend the 2023-24 budget plan at a public hearing Monday night.

The nine-member governing body is now reviewing the plan that Mayor Levar M. Stoney introduced in March and will begin considering amendments next week for the budget that will be effective July 1.

At an informal session before the meeting, the council addressed one issue — funding repairs for mobile homes on which the Stoney administration appears to have dawdled.

The council approved $300,000 for such work last May in approving the 2022-23 budget, but the administration has not put the money to work eight months later.

After scolding the city housing officials for failing to use the funds as the council directed, Council President Michael J. Jones, 9th District, joined a consensus in directing the administration to release the funds to the nonprofit project:Homes so repair and replacement of decrepit mobile homes can proceed.

The mayor has requested another $500,000 for mobile home improvement, but his administration is looking to create a revolving loan fund to help the mostly low-income Latino residents of mobile homes buy new manufactured homes, though some council members are skeptical that approach would work.

During the informal session, the council also put a temporary hold on Mayor Stoney’s plan to use $1.7 million in surplus funds from the 2022-23 fiscal year that ended June 30 for a pilot scholarship program that would enable Richmond city graduates to attend community college with no tuition cost.

Council members wanted to hear more details about the proposal before signing off, which could happen at the committee hearing Monday, April 3.

At the budget session, 3rd District School Board member Kenya Gibson was among the advocates for a $7 million increase to fully meet the RPS request, rather than the reduced amount Mayor Stoney has recommended that would force cutbacks in programs and personnel.

On a night when the council honored the John Marshall High School basketball team for its state champion team that also has been ranked No. 1 among the nation’s high schools and whose coach, Ty White, has been honored as the top high school coach, Ms. Gibson said the best way to “show pride” in the team is to provide the additional funds for the schools.

The Rev. Ralph Hodge, pastor of Second Baptist Church, led a contingent from the nonprofit Richmonders Involved in Strengthening our Communities, to urge the council to release $6 million in previously appropriated money to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and also to provide $10 million from the general fund in the 2023-24 budget to bolster the fund that provides loans to build less costly housing.

The council was told that the mayor’s plan to borrow $50 million during the next five years to support development of more affordable housing would require the city to pay more than $85 million in interest to and sharply limit the trust fund’s impact in encouraging development of more affordable homes and apartments.

In the view of the RISC contingent, the mayor’s proposal undermines a council ordinance from two years ago that called using general fund dollars to support the trust fund.

Other speakers urged the council to allow front line supervisors in public works and public utilities to unionize, noting that they are part of the teams that handle repair and improvement work alongside the workers.

The city’s failure to push for action on climate change in laying out plans for investing hundreds of millions of dollars for replacing old gas pipes and installing new ones rather than encouraging a switch to electrical appliances and heating systems, also was noted by speakers.

The city is currently selling at least 35 percent less natural gas than it did in 2000, one speaker noted, forcing remaining customers to pay more to cover the utility’s costs. Council was urged to consider that the city’s utility will continue to lose customers and needs to prepare for a cleaner energy future rather than sticking with a fossil fuel that will eventually be replaced by power generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources.