Council OKs budget, with tweaks expected
Stoney’s revised, $744.1 million plan passes in split vote
A split Richmond City Council has approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that even its supporters acknowledged will require routine revision because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We do know there will be changes; there will be further impact,” said Cynthia Newbille, the council’s president. “This isn’t going to be a one-shot deal.”
Mayor Levar Stoney cut $38.5 million from the budget he first proposed in early March, before the pandemic took hold. Last
month, he put a revised, $744.1 million plan on the council’s virtual desk. Over objections from some members, the council approved that plan on a 5-4 vote during a remote meeting held Monday night.
Supporting the budget were Andreas Addison, 1st District; Stephanie Lynch, 5th District; Ellen Robertson, 6th District; Newbille, 7th District; and Michael Jones, 9th District.
Opposing the plan were Kimberly Gray, 2nd District; Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, 3rd District; Kristen Larson, 4th District; and Reva Trammell, 8th District.
Council members who objected to the revised plan said it didn’t adequately account for fallout from the pandemic that has prompted widespread business closures and thousands of job losses. They said they wanted to delay a vote for two weeks to review and make adjustments based on newly released financial data from the most recent quarter.
In particular, opponents questioned whether an estimated 10% drop in meals tax revenues was realistic, given the damage the pandemic has done to the city’s dining scene. Eateries across the city have closed their doors and laid off staff. Some have said they will not reopen.
Even if the state moves toward a gradual relaxing of public health restrictions, there’s no guarantee residents will patronize the businesses as they did prior to the pandemic, Hilbert said. In light of that, he called the meals tax forecast “wildly optimistic” and joined others in lobbying to delay the vote.
“These devastating economic times go deeper than what is being proposed,” Gray said.
Before the public health crisis, Stoney proposed a $782.6 million budget. That proposal would have funded 2% raises for city employees and $16 million in new spending for Richmond Public Schools.
Amid COVID-19, Stoney cut out the raises; $10 million of the new funding for city schools; and funding for a dozen new positions planned for the Departments of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, Animal Care and Control, Human Services and the City Attorney’s Office.
In the plan approved Monday, revenue from real estate, personal property, meals, businesses and other tax sources are projected to be 5% to 15% lower than the plan Stoney originally pitched.
With business closures and thousands out of work, tax revenues from consumer sources — meals, sales, admissions, lodging — could fall even more, Gray and others said.
Proponents of the plan didn’t dispute that concern, but they pointed to a previously discussed arrangement to review and amend the budget on a rolling basis throughout the fiscal year.
“We have a lot of work in front of us on a monthly basis when we look at the actual revenues that come in and the actual tough decisions that we may have to make down the road when we get some real numbers,” Robertson said.
In a statement after the vote, Stoney echoed the need for flexibility and collaboration between the council and his administration: “This budget is not the budget we first proposed, nor is it the budget we wanted, but it’s the budget we have to live with in light of these most difficult and challenging times. Amid the uncertainty of this pandemic, we must be prepared to make adjustments as we go, and we fully expect to do so in the coming months.”
Also Monday, the council approved an amnesty period for real estate and personal property taxes. Late payers will not be charged penalties or interest if their balances are settled by
Aug. 14. The initiative aims to provide relief for residents and businesses unable to pay by the regular June deadlines.
The council also approved a resolution requesting the administration cease pre-employment and random drug testing for marijuana. The resolution, proposed by Lynch, does not apply to public safety employees, or city employees suspected of using the drug while on the job.