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Flash Points in Richmond’s Five-Hour Budget Workshop 

Monday’s marathon session covered judge accusations, drug stats and a burgeoning leaf-collection debate.

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Budget work sessions are underway.

Wait! Stay with me.

This was an action-packed, five-hour session before members of City Council, featuring a gamut of presentations about budget needs from the commonwealth’s attorney, city sheriff, and the departments of public works, public utilities, information technology and emergency communications.

Council has been holding public sessions to pore over Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposed $681 million budget for the coming fiscal year. A vote is scheduled for May.

Here are some highlights and takeaways:

• Councilwoman Reva Trammell grilled Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring about a judge at the Manchester courthouse, accusing him handing down more lenient sentences than other local judges. She referenced constituents “crying their eyeballs out” and low police morale because of it. Herring said he was aware of the judge’s reputation but that, “unless that judge is violating judicial canons,” there was little he or the city could do.

• Interesting budget fact: 60 percent of the city jail’s pharmaceutical budget goes toward HIV medications for an average of 19 inmates who need it, and 15 percent is for psychotropic medications.

• Sheriff C.T. Woody spent time talking up the city jail’s lower average daily population in recent years. Trammell called it “bragging” and asked if the lower numbers were because a judge in Manchester wasn’t locking up enough people.

• Councilwoman Kim Gray also noted several line items in the sheriff’s budget, such as inmate clothing, that increase significantly in the mayor’s proposed budget, despite decreased inmate populations. The reply was essentially that the comparison was “not apples to apples.”

• Council president Chris Hilbert has tried mightily to keep these work sessions to schedule -- to no avail. Council members have pushed back against question times cut short. “Hope springs eternal,” Hilbert said about his ambitious timeline.

• The longest discussion happened with Bobby Vincent, interim director of the Department of Public Works, about its plans to change leaf and bulk collection. Rates on bulk collection are going up to pay for more frequent service, and leaf collection will put the onus on property owners to bag leaves -- rather than collecting them through vacuum trucks. Vincent called the changes an enhancement. Several council members disagreed. There will be more to come on this topic.

• One common theme of department heads was vacancy struggles. The economy is good, public utilities director Bob Steidel noted, making it more challenging to hire and retain employees. The Department of Public Works has a 41-percent vacancy rate, which it makes up for with temporary hiring throughout the year. The head of the Department of Emergency Communications mentioned that he’d met with Richmond Public Schools last week to discuss getting more students “in the pipeline early,” post-graduation.

• Another common theme was aging infrastructure. From dump trucks to storm drains, Richmond is working with older stuff, generally. It’s one pushback the directors used against comparisons to county rates and taxes. As well as proffers that counties use to recover costs of new infrastructure from developers. “Apples to rocks,” as Steidel said in reference to Chesterfield County water services, taking the metaphor to new heights.

• Hilbert wanted the audience to know that council members who walked off the dais could still hear the discussion. “And at the risk of being indelicate,” he said, “there are speakers in the restroom.” Noted.

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