What's Your Budget Fantasy?

by Jessee Perry

“So, what do you think about the Mayor’s budget?”

To cut to the chase: it disappoints me that Mayor Stoney’s proposed budget qualifies as historic. Adequately funding short- and long-term investments in schools and basic infrastructure should not be a revolutionary concept. I appreciate many of the items Mayor Stoney included; however, I adamantly disagree with the characterization of his proposed budget being “big and bold.” This budget should be the minimum standard we set for our city.

Sure, an additional $1.9 million in funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that serves income levels of 60-80% AMI is AWESOME… but is it all that bold to continue to fund status quo programs? I applaud Mayor Stoney for his Eviction Diversion Program. It is a great example of acting within one’s position of power to create a pragmatic solution addressing a real problem. But one bold program does not a bold budget make. This budget makes progress; however, I wouldn’t consider it to be progressive.  

Am I supposed to jump for joy that a politician FINALLY proposed a budget that funds the school’s request? Am I supposed to be happy there is additional funding for Crisis Intervention Training despite many elected’s never-ending moment of silence following the murder of Marcus David-Peters? Where is the equity in a proposal that yet again increases funding for a police department that shielded an officer that told students when they turned 18, their asses were his? Why aren’t we all outraged about how paying city employees a “living wage” is defined as an hourly rate of $12.07? Oh, and I will never stop questioning if a $700,000 contribution toward a regional police plane is ACTUALLY necessary.

There are several parts of Mayor Stoney’s budget that I am excited about; however, let’s be real: it falls far short of addressing countless needs in our city. It is disillusioned or disingenuous for any politician to grandstand on a “cut our way to success” platform. Our city’s needs are too great for any sole funding lever to be presented as the exhaustive answer to Richmond’s woes.

  • We need more revenue from taxation options already within the city’s authority.

  • We need more taxation options available to the city.

  • We need to find more efficiencies.

  • We need to continue auditing.

  • We need more accountability.

  • We need to lobby our General Assembly representatives to increase the VCU and state PILOT contribution.  

Our elected officials can only do what is within the power of the seat we elected them for to achieve the vision they sold us of their leadership.. In my estimation, in the absence of presenting viable alternatives  within your governing body’s purview, the blanket defiance of tax increases is a failure to do the job you were elected to do. It is one thing for private individuals to not have suggestions or counter proposals. But for our leaders to neglect to present or proactively collaborate to find alternative solutions is unacceptable.

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The More Things Change…

Let’s take a quick peak at City Council’s recent budget season track record:  

  • In 2017 after 18 hours in a budget meeting, Richmond City Council asked the Mayor’s administration to identify $1.3M in cuts to balance the budget.

  • In 2018 after being unable to identify $1.2M in cuts to balance the budget, then-President Hilbert asked the Mayor for his administration’s help in making cuts. The Mayor declined assistance and council ultimately raided the public art fund to balance the budget.

Year after year we have the same arguments. The same people say the same things. When the dust settles, nothing has changed. I don’t know about you, but I think it would be nice if every once in a while, our elected officials dropped the platitudes and paused the mud-slinging to toss around some pragmatic solutions. Maybe the current level of in-fighting, politicization, and blatant disrespectful behavior wouldn’t be so egregious if almost all of our elected city officials didn’t campaign on improved communication and relationships between our government bodies.

Richmond, we deserve better from our elected leaders.

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I am tired of how our city’s past mistakes get abused as resistance when it is convenient to political agendas. While there are legitimate concerns about our city government’s past mistakes that need to be addressed; there is also fear mongering. We can’t allow fear mongering to get in the way of productive dialogue seeking implementable solutions.  The tough reality is that if there was an easy fix to our city’s challenges… it would have been done by now. Magical unicorn policies/cuts/efficiencies/regulations/tax increases do not exist. Progress is a long, arduous road and our city’s track record of success ain’t too great. Richmond has racks on racks on RACKS of plans, studies, and commissions. When will we have leaders who know how to execute on a strategy to achieve a vision? In 2020, will the real Richmond leaders please stand up… and run for office?


It Ain’t Easy

Today, April 22nd, is 35 days since Mayor Stoney presented his budget. City Council members’ deadline to submit their priority rankings, reductions, and revenue amendment proposals was Thursday April 18th.  While some proposed amendments are known, the full documents have not been posted online at this point.  During the day at a budget work session, Council will finally begin seeking consensus on their proposed amendments. At night, there is a public hearing on the budget at 6PM during Council’s formal meeting where people have an opportunity to voice their opinion on various budget items.

But what choices do we have? Fund the Mayor’s budget or bust? We, the people, must stand against the us v.s. them rhetoric that divides us. This shouldn’t be the Mayor’s budget or City Council’s budget. This is OUR budget. Both sides need to find a way to give and meet in the middle to serve the people who elected them.

It is easy to oppose everything while standing for nothing. But governing was never supposed to be easy and we voted people in office because we trust them to make tough decisions on our behalf. If we peel back everyone’s political antics, the reality is that Mayor Stoney’s budget is a long list of overdue necessary basic investments. We need to stop permitting the narrative framing Mayor Stoney’s budget as this wild ass radical bastion fraught with fraud, abuse, and waste that is all the way out of pocket. At the same time, we also need to stop diminishing the importance of concerns about Richmond’s financial management track record.

We must call for our Council members to amend the budget in a way that strikes a balance between adequate funding and fiscal responsibility. It is their responsibility to work together to compromise and move budget deliberations beyond the current zero-sum game where after the vote half the city feels like they lost and stays bitter. We can’t fix years of disinvestment across all of our city-wide services in one year BUT at a bare minimum we have to do something to AT LEAST fund the school’s request this budget cycle.


Envisioning a Middle Ground

Going into a big budget day, I challenge our elected officials to think of ways to initiate negotiating a compromise with an equitable outcome. To get your juices flowing, I’ll tell you about my fantasy.

My fantasy land representative would propose legislation addressing the city’s revenue concerns by phasing in Mayor Stoney’s proposed tax rate increases over a three-year period. Then, they would garner support of their fellow colleagues by finding ways to address concerns such as including oversight policies to ensure fiscal responsibility.

Example of a Proposed Increase Schedule  

  • 2019: increase real estate tax by $0.05 to $1.25 and accept utility fee increase

  • 2020: increase real estate tax by $0.02 to $1.27, increase cigarette tax by $0.25,

  • 2021: increase real estate tax by $0.02 to $1.29 and increase cigarette tax by $0.25 to $0.50

While the increases would be approved to automatically go into effect each year, there would be an annual review process contingent on the implementation of a satisfactory percentage of audit recommendations. For accountability, the additional revenue from the increases could be set aside in special revenue funds to direct money to specific departments. Leveraging the existing performance-based budget pilot would be an efficient way to impose tracking mechanisms. By phasing in proposed increases, there is additional time for communication and notice for Richmond residents to adjust and gives our government an opportunity to work on rebuilding trust.

What’s YOUR budget fantasy? Tell City Council TONIGHT at 6PM during the budget public hearing.

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