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OPINION: A Rare Opportunity 

Richmond’s leaders need to take full advantage of American Rescue Plan funds to address core inequality issues.

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When asked why the city doesn’t embrace more aggressive approaches to combating poverty and redressing gaping inequities, Richmond elected officials have for decades defaulted to two responses.

First, leaders point to the fiscal limitations on city government. Each year during budget discussions, we start with high hopes for tackling problems like poverty. Then the reality of budget limitations sinks in and the option of being bold and transformative fades into a distant aspiration. Yes, dollars have been carved out for promising new approaches, such as the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the Office of Community Wealth Building, but these initiatives still fall well short of meeting Richmond’s tremendous and long-standing challenges. Sadly, we even see that other core government functions suffer neglect as well. 

Recent mayors have tried to boost local revenues through ambitious development plans or tax-increase proposals, only to find stiff opposition from much of the public and ultimately City Council. A targeted increase in the meals tax to benefit schools and the introduction of a cigarette tax were adopted in 2018 and 2019, but only after considerable conflict and drama.  The notion that most taxpayers, who already pay by far the highest property taxes in the region, could be convinced to support significant property tax increases to fund local government services has been tried and found wanting. See 2019.

Second, leaders point to the limitations on municipal power under Virginia’s system of local government. Got a creative idea to address a social problem and make more money for the city? That’s great, but if the Virginia General Assembly hasn’t specifically authorized your local government to undertake such an activity, the city’s lawyers aren’t going to allow you to go forward with the idea.

That’s the practical consequence of the Dillon Rule. In the many years when Republicans controlled one or both houses in the General Assembly, conventional City Hall wisdom was that efforts to get the General Assembly to assign more powers to Richmond, or localities in general, would be pointless or even counterproductive.

Fast forward to summer 2021 and the facts on the ground have changed on both fronts, at least for now. What remains to be seen is whether legacy thinking in City Hall can also change to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the American Rescue Plan’s significant package of assistance to the Richmond.

The plan, passed by Congress in March, includes direct aid to localities to assist with recovery from the health and economic consequences of the pandemic and to offset lost revenue from the 2020 economic downturn. That assistance will total $154.9 million for Richmond. Funds must be assigned to a specific use by Dec. 31, 2024, and must be spent no later than Dec. 31, 2026. 

In effect, this funding provides a boost to the city budget of nearly $39 million a year over the next four years. That’s equivalent to roughly 5% of the city’s annual operational budget – a boost far beyond any plausible tax increase or the wildest promises of any economic development project.

These funds must be used strategically to address the city’s long-term needs. Our organization, Richmond Together, has outlined a detailed plan for spending $116 million of these funds on core needs related to poverty, housing, and government functioning.

Specific proposals in our plan include ramping up workforce and youth employment initiatives of the Office of Community Wealth Building, supporting minority and local-owned businesses, investments in fighting homelessness, supporting the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, supporting early childhood education, creating a human services crisis relief fund, access to broadband services and investments in health equity.

We also support significant investments in bolstering GRTC infrastructure including benches and shelters at bus stops, investments in South Side infrastructure, and a one-time, large-scale effort to update computer systems at City Hall so that Richmond residents can have a functional government that we all deserve.

Properly utilized, these funds can help bring Richmond’s efforts to fight poverty, build more affordable housing and upgrade city government to scale, with long-lasting impact.

Public schools are getting support through the plan with a separate tranche of funding, and it’s equally imperative that the School Board use those dollars strategically both on immediate needs and supporting implementation of the schools’ strategic plan.

Our plan deliberately leaves considerable funds uncommitted for use on priority capital projects or agency needs, such as more youth programming and longer library hours. We hope the administration and City Council work together on a list of projects prioritized by equity: for instance, finally getting the swimming pool re-opened at Calhoun Center in Gilpin Court after years of closure.

What we are opposed to, however, is simply dividing up the available dollars for district-specific projects that may not impact the city’s core problems of poverty, underemployment and unaffordable housing, or to fund agency-driven wish lists that may not produce better functioning government operations.

A strong local plan to take maximum advantage of the American Rescue Plan should be just the start. Richmond’s elected leaders should also be pushing the governor and the General Assembly to use the state’s much larger allocation of funding through the plan, over $4 billion, to support the larger-scale needs of the state capital, particularly in education, housing and infrastructure.

And Richmond’s leaders should be asking General Assembly allies to support enabling legislation that might allow the city to undertake more creative initiatives in areas like social enterprise development and establishing child trust funds that help all public-school students build wealth.

Opportunities like the American Rescue Plan come around all too rarely. Richmond has too many severe challenges to fail to take advantage of this moment. History will not judge current leaders kindly if the strongest possible effort is not made to use these funds to catalyze lasting change. The money is there. Is there the commensurate political will to reduce poverty dramatically in Richmond by taking existing efforts to scale and making good on years of promises and pledges?

We hope, expect, and demand that the next several months reveal the answer to that question to be a resounding yes.

Teresa Caviness is a business and communications strategist working with industry-leading organizations across the country. Garrett Sawyer is an executive human relations professional and owner of Sawyer HR Consulting LLC. Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. They are all members of the civic group Richmond Together. Visit richmondtogether.org.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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