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OPINION: Misplaced Priorities 

Mayor Levar Stoney’s new tax increase isn’t about fixing schools and roads, it’s about soundbites for the next election.

click to enlarge A majority of Richmond City Council members have said they do not support Mayor Levar Stoney's budget proposal for a 9 cent property tax increase that would fund repairs for schools and city streets.

A majority of Richmond City Council members have said they do not support Mayor Levar Stoney's budget proposal for a 9 cent property tax increase that would fund repairs for schools and city streets.

When it comes to their tax dollars, Richmonders are used to paying more for less.

With his new budget, Mayor Levar Stoney is asking Richmonders to pay even more through a 9-cent property tax rate increase, a utility rate increase averaging $5.82 a month per household and a 50-cent-per-pack cigarette tax. This comes after an effective tax increase at the beginning of 2019 when city property assessments rose 8.3 percent on average. These three new tax increases would put him at a total of six in just three years in office [when you include utility fee increase for bulk trash pick up, meals tax increase and tax assessment increase without adjusting the rate down to make it revenue neutral].

He says he has found all the possible efficiencies and savings possible in City Hall, and if we want better schools and roads then this is the only option. What he doesn’t mention is that he isn’t simply handing over this new tax revenue to the Richmond Public Schools and Public Works to do their thing. He instead gives only $6 million to schools and $2 million to Public Works. The rest is spread out among almost every city department except for an unlucky few like Minority Business Development, Economic Development and Housing and Community Development.

And the largest portion is assigned to the item called general fund transfer to debt service. That money would be used as leverage to take out a $48 million loan. This proposed loan wouldn’t even be used to get an even larger sum for schools and roads, but again would be spread across various projects to give everyone a little something.

This tax increase is not about schools and roads. If it were, then every available dollar would be funneled directly into those priorities.

Instead this budget tries to be everything to everyone all at once. It is a deliberate action to avoid having to make difficult decisions or do the hard work of fixing City Hall. Why roll up your sleeves when you can just raise taxes and do a bunch of different projects that can be used as sound bites in the 2020 election or the 2021 election for governor?

This municipal attention deficit disorder is par for the course in Richmond, but Stoney is taking it to new heights. This tax-increase proposal comes at the same time he is seeking to divert tax revenue to fund a billion dollar coliseum development. Coincidentally, the $21.1 million his property tax increase will generate matches the $21.1 million average annual bond payment required to make the new Coliseum a reality.

It is common knowledge in Richmond, to everyone except the mayor apparently, that City Hall lacks focus and competency. In just the last few months there have been news stories of the city’s having to pay twice to make road repairs because they weren’t done properly the first time, of an accounting error costing the city $3 million and of one employee racking up 1,900 hours of overtime. In 2017, Richmond spent $92 million on general government administration, which is more than double the per capita average for cities in Virginia. Norfolk, which has almost the same exact number of people as Richmond, spent $63 million less. Virginia Beach, with 200,000 more people than Richmond, spent $25 million less than Richmond. Basically, name a locality other than Fairfax County and Richmond spent more.

In this budget there would be $46 million in new revenue: $21.8 million in new property tax revenue from assessment value increases, $21.1 million from the property tax rate increase, and $3 million from the cigarette tax increase. Taking into account a decrease of $8 million from various sources such as the admissions tax, which is less because the mayor already has unilaterally shut down the Coliseum, there would be a total of $38 million more than last year’s budget to spend. All Stoney would have to do is take that $38 million and find $2 million in cuts and he would have the $40 million he wants to give to schools and roads in this budget without a single dime of debt.

If he managed to cut general government administration spending to the level of Virginia Beach and combine it with just the revenue from the assessment increases, we would have $46.8 million without raising taxes by 1 cent.

Instead the mayor apparently went to the Richmond city government school of financial management, where you max out the credit cards locking up all future revenue in interest payments without actually solving the most pressing issues. The mayor’s proposed path will continue the patented Richmond pattern of subpar services for our residents, while the politicians throw up their hands and complain about lack of revenue.

Stoney either doesn’t have the understanding or desire to solve the tough problems. His lack of interest is obvious from his constant trips out of town to set up his future political career and by how we have gone more than a year without seeing the details of his billion dollar coliseum idea. It is time for Richmond to stop being the capital of misplaced priorities. If Stoney thinks he has done all he can do with what we have given him, then maybe it is time we start taking applications for someone new.

Justin Griffin is a small business attorney who lives and has his law practice in Richmond. He earned his law degree from the University of Richmond and has an accounting degree with an economics minor from the University of Tennessee. He operates the website NoColiseum.com.

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

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