With the final budget adoption scheduled for April 24, City Council members are engaged in the annual springtime ritual of adding and deleting items from the city’s coffers. With taxpayers screaming for relief and council members up for reelection, this year’s final budget deliberations have taken a decidedly searching tone.
“Let’s keep an open mind,” said Mayor Bill Euille during Monday’s worksession.
This weekend, Mayor Euille will have the unenviable task of building consensus. Most council members seem to be on board to set a tax rate of 81.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value, a rate that would raise the average tax bill $259 from $4,035 to $4,294. But they are not yet in agreement about the best way to achieve this goal.
The biggest unanswered question involves the schools. In order to achieve a 5-percent spending increase in the amended budget, City Manager Jim Hartmann proposed cutting the School Board’s proposed budget by $1.8 million. Last week, Councilman Rob Krupicka suggested that the city might look at ways to reduce the size of the cut.
“The budget in Richmond may hit the schools with increased retirement expenses,” Krupicka said. “We’re in the final throes of negotiating the budget, and it’s very difficult to have a sense of where it’s going to end up.”
While sausage is being made at City Hall, School Board members nervously await the outcome.
“We prefer no cut at all,” said School Board member Melissa Luby.
When the Office on Women lost a grant from the Virginia Department of Health, many people were concerned about the effectiveness of the city’s outreach. The grant paid for half of a community education specialist position for the Sexual Assault Response and Awareness program. According to Lisa Baker, director of the Office on Women, the loss of grant money was the result of a series of mistakes.
“We kept calling and asking them for the grant, and it was going to a dead voice mail account,” Baker said. “Then we got to someone who was on vacation for four days.”
By the time that the Office on Women finally got in touch with the Department of Health, the window had closed and the grant was no longer available. The office was able to find a new grant to pick up part of the lost money, but it still needed $18,000 to pay the rest of the tab. Although the city manager put the grant replacement on the chopping block, consensus on City Council seems to be moving toward replacing the lost money.
“It looks like it’s coming back,” Vice Mayor Del Pepper told Baker Monday night during a worksession. But she was quick to qualify her remark: “No promises.”
With council members looking for ways to cut the budget, nobody knows what the final budget will look like or which programs might end up on the chopping block.
“We’re all on the edge of our seats,” Baker said. “We won’t know for sure until Monday night.”
Budget Season Blooms
As the flowers of spring come into bloom, some members of the City Council are thinking about gardening. Even though the city’s budget is tight and council members are trying to lower property tax bill increases, a debate has blossomed over how much gardening needs to be done at City Hall.
At issue is “Seasons of Color,” a program of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. It provides seasonal plantings at a wide variety of locations — including the Market Square area outside City Hall. The city manager suggested removing $30,000 from the program.
“We could have those decorative cabbages for six months instead of three,” said Bruce Johnson, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
During Monday’s worksession on Monday, Councilman Paul Smedberg said he disagreed with the cut.
“I think it’s ridiculous that this is even on here,” he said. “I think this goes to the heart of what we’re doing.”
Budgets are about priorities, though. And Councilman Rob Krupicka said that the City Council should question why the city needs to have four seasonal plantings a year.
“There are lots of ways to do landscaping that don’t require constant changing,” Krupicka said.
Councilman Andrew Macdonald piped in to say that he would like to see more native plants.
“Planting native plants makes sense,” said Councilman Andrew Macdonald. “I’d like to see more red bud, spice bush, dogwoods and hackberry. It’s a way to beatify the city at a lower cost and it’s better for the environment.”