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Richmond mayor’s $681M budget would hike costs of services, not taxes

RICHMOND, Va. -- Mayor Levar Stoney presented a proposed budget to the Richmond City Council on Monday that called for an increase in the cost of city services, but not a tax hike (full video below).

Stoney emphasized that the budget is built on very limited resources, while at the same time he made a call to build a Richmond that looks good beyond the front page of a magazine or in a restaurant review.

Stoney acknowledged that city services are behind in many regards;  sidewalk repair is four years behind, there aren't enough resources to repair all the potholes or roads, and there are 3,000 requests for alley maintenance. He also expressed shock that although there are 60 primary snow routes, the city only has access to 42 snowplows.

An increase (outlined below) to the solid waste fee to purchase eight new trucks and hire 15 new positions, plus additional equipment, to allow pickup of bulk items,  brush, and leaves every two weeks on the same schedule as recycling.

The neglect and challenges have "dogged us for years" he said, and "will take years to fix."

Richmond will be righted, Stoney said, not with a tax increase this year, but rather through cuts, efficient operations, service cost increases, and making sure everyone pays their fair share.

The cost of some city services will increase to boost revenue.

The real estate tax collection rate will rise one percent in the coming year, to gain roughly $2.4 million.

The city services which will go up are gas, by $1.77; solid waste by $2.50; water by $2.14; waste water by $2.65; and storm water by $0.19.

He did promise that people using city services in surrounding counties will soon share the same costs as city residents.

A tax amnesty period will be offered for a limited time to residents paying past due real estate and personal property taxes in an effort to collect another $2.4 million.

"Our tax revenues fund our schools, public safety, and our city services ‐ and I will not tolerate shortchanging our children, first responders and every one of our neighbors," Stoney said. "Everyone needs to do their part, and if you don’t, well… don’t say you weren’t warned!"

Two internal service funds, for Information Technology and Risk Management, are proposed to help provide service to other departments on a cost-reimbursement basis. This will now require the Department of Public Utilities to pay a "fair portion of the cost" for services, that were previously taken from a general fund.

Education will be a focus of Stoney's first proposed budget, with a funding increase of $6.1 million in additional funding.

"This is the largest increase in school funding proposed by any mayor in their introduced budget under our current system ‐ because education is my top priority, and this investment reflects that," he said. "But I am also committed to making an investment in the retention of our police and fire personnel."

Stoney's budget proposed $1.3 million toward-- which he called a down payment on his commitment for further investment --  the police department and $1 million for the fire department, to help with salary increases "that reflect their rank and length of service."

He also said that he will eliminate the controversial security detail that former Mayor Dwight Jones employed. And he called for using $235,000 from a projected surplus to fund new sonar technology to enable officers to immediately identify and pinpoint the location of gunfire.

Other proposed investments drawn from a projected surplus included one‐time investments in equipment and temporary staff to support $700,000 in alley repairs and $400,000 in grass cutting services "to avoid the unpleasantness we all experienced last summer."

The effort won't be without its challenges, though. Stoney said that in his brief time in office he unearthed "a stark reality" that the city has not provided for the "true needs of our city."

He chalked that up to some unavoidable neglect,  the byproduct of a recession, but then said, "the responsibility lies within our own ranks."

"Too often there has been a reluctance or fear to speak plainly to the people – to explain the gap between the reality of the resources at our disposal and the real costs of certain services," Stoney said.

He also proposed a "practical return" to an annual, rather than a biennial, budget -- something mayors have not done since 2000.

"Basing revenue forecasting models on a 12‐month cycle is more predictable and reliable than basing operations on a 24‐month cycle," he said. "It also offers our city greater flexibility to respond faster to economic changes."

There are not enough resources and new revenues to address the city's needs and challenges, Stoney said, and he also explained also that the city's debt is maxed out. He said that Richmond's outstanding debt has doubled over the previous eight years, to more than $800 million.

Stoney also pledged to submit the city's CAFR on time this year, for the first time in three years.

The full budget proposal can be read here.