Top Ten Takeaways from the RVA Budget Process (So Far…)

1953 Boiler at Mary Scott Preschool, Richmond, VA, still in use. (Posted to Twitter by Jason Kamras, April 18. )

Why Local Budgets Matter: Setting the Context

Richmond is a structurally challenged city with far too many needs and far too few resources. Truly effective leadership in this context means taking concrete steps to become a more equitable and more economically robust city. Effective leadership cannot mean continuing to do the same thing, expecting a magically different result to appear, and then blaming “City Hall” when it fails to do so.

Consider the context: Federal spending on urban and community development, affordable housing, and related programs supporting cities has been stagnant or in decline for decades. Here in Virginia, while cities do have a growing voice, state politics are still dominated by suburban and rural interests. Exhibit A: the patently unjust local school funding formula employed by the Commonwealth and long supported by many of the very same suburban Whites that left urban Richmond when it became more Black, a formula that specifically disadvantages the City of Richmond.

That leaves our local government as the last line of defense when it comes to providing a quality education, efficient delivery of public services, and meeting human needs. The City of Richmond does an enormous amount of good: between youth programs, social services, workforce development, and support for nonprofit organizations, it is the most powerful entity in the region devoted to the uplift of Richmond citizens in need. The City also provides, to the benefit of all, a usable public infrastructure and vital public safety services. Most important, it provides over half the funding for the local school system, charged with shaping the futures of nearly 25,000 children, most of whom are economically disadvantaged.

We know already that Mayor Stoney’s proposed property tax hike to $1.29/$100, primarily for the purpose of fully funding schools, is likely off the table, although it shouldn’t be. Arguably, the tax hike proposed by the mayor should have been even higher simply because our students — and Richmond’s future — deserve the best investment. The $1.25 proposed by Council President Cynthia Newbille, combined with an increase in the estimated funds to be generated by real estate taxes as well as delinquent property sales in FY 2020 (nearly $9 million), amounts to nearly the same amount of new revenue as in the Mayor’s budget; and at this writing, potentially four members of Council could yet support the $1.25 rate, enough to sustain a mayoral veto. So the fate of this year’s budget isn’t yet sealed.

In any case, the civic conversation Richmond needs to have about the budget is only beginning. The issues discussed below will recur next year, and the year after that, until the City commits to bold action to meet its most pressing needs. When will we stop kicking the can down the road for someone else to fix? When will we as a community take responsibility and accountability for our kids’ success? If not now — post-recession and with among the lowest state unemployment rates in the country — then when will we fully invest in our public schools?

Here then, are our top ten takeaways from the budget process to date.

1. The City has a 24% poverty rate, and one of the lowest-performing school systems in the state. These are preventable moral catastrophes that demand change. People of faith and conscience cannot tolerate the status quo.

Any discussion of the budget that does not start from the basic realities that one in four of our residents and two in five of our children live in poverty, that we have schools long-suffering from both physical neglect and low achievement, that we are in the bottom two percent of county units in the entire nation in fostering upward social mobility, and that does not recognize the blunt fact of severe racial and economic inequities in this city, can and should be dismissed as irrelevant.

For persons with limited financial income, quality public services and public goods are not luxury items — rather, they are essential to survival and the possibility of progress toward thriving. In the short and medium term, mitigating the poverty rate has two, linked dimensions: helping people grow their own income and wealth (workforce development, business development, and related wealth building strategies), and partially offsetting the impact of low income through strong public services (education, transit, libraries, parks, health services). In the longer term improving public education (through a holistic lens that addresses the needs of schools and surrounding communities, children and parents) is the most critical step local government can take to reduce poverty, expand opportunity, and build a more just community.

The status quo is not okay. Doing nothing is unacceptable. Only doing a little — for example, not fully funding the budget — sends the message that we don’t really care about our kids. Anything less than 100% support says to kids: figure it out. It doesn’t matter that you might not have heat in your classroom.

Where is our unconditional love and support for our city’s young people?

2. No, City government spending is not wildly wasteful.

Per capita government spending in the City of Richmond is aligned with other cities in Virginia, with the exception that we get more funding from federal sources than most other Virginia cities. Our property tax burden per capita is almost literally the same as in cities statewide.

Yet we have read patently misleading claims that Richmond’s spending on basic administrative services is wildly out of line with comparable cities. This is not true, but an artifact of how Richmond defines “general government spending” (i.e. including grants to other government organizations such as the annual subsidy, roughly $13 million, to GRTC).

Does this mean that organizational improvements can’t be made and should not be made? Of course not. The biggest room in City Hall remains the room for improvement. That’s why the work of the nascent Performance Management Office within the Stoney administration needs support, attention, and resources. But we should not assume that the path to greater efficiency always means cuts; sometimes, it might mean increased investments in personnel to staff critical functions that are now being performed at a substandard level.

3. Nickel and diming city agencies is not equitable nor the way to improve efficiency. Nor is it acceptable to reduce investments in equity.

As we speak, City Council still must figure out a way to balance the budget if it is not going to embrace Stoney’s proposed tax increases. The path of least resistance to doing so is the across-the-board spending cut, of 1.5%, 2%, perhaps 3%, to all agencies, or reducing funding for currently vacant positions.

This option has the virtue of being politically convenient, which is why Council has kept coming back to it for years. The problem is that years of nickel-and-diming agencies adds up to significantly reduced capacity and flexibility for the agencies, making it harder or even impossible to deliver excellent services for citizens.

Here’s what it’s like to be a City agency director: you have a vast mission, and limited resources. So you carve out specific goals and action steps that will allow you to demonstrate progress as well as to meet any and all mandated responsibilities. You never have enough good people and you live in fear that the ones you do have will go elsewhere for better pay or an easier job. You fret that if you have too many vacancies at a given moment in time, you will lose the funding in next year’s budget and never be able to fill the position. You fight for every increment of $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 you can get because that seemingly small amount of money can be the difference between making an average or mediocre hire and an excellent hire.

Mayor Stoney is right: after a certain point, the mantra of “doing more with less” becomes simply a lie. Having less means the citizens are going to get fewer services, and the City is going to have fewer excellent employees. There’s no escaping those basic realities.

Nor is it acceptable to balance the budget by reducing investments in equity. This year Mayor Stoney has proposed modest but important investments in affordable housing and public transportation — to build the capacity of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to make a meaningful dent in offsetting gentrification, and to fund additional sorely needed GRTC routes in under-served neighborhoods. These are in truth mild steps for a community serious about equity, but they show progress and commitment. In any reasonable estimation, these are more important community needs than an unchanged property tax.

4. The Education Compact may not be working perfectly, but it’s working

Look, people in Richmond are arguing about schools funding! That must mean the Education Compact has failed!

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The Education Compact was not intended to prevent conflict; indeed, it is based on the recognition that precisely because Richmond is a structurally challenged city and the Mayor, City Council, and School Board have legitimately different interests and priorities, conflict is inevitable. What the Compact offers is an intentional commitment of all parties to stay at the table and have the needed conversations about both meeting the needs of schools and holding schools accountable for money spent.

Just a few years ago, the previous superintendent was locked in a bitter feud with the previous mayor over funding, leading to student marches on City Hall, massive activist turnouts at Council meetings, threats of school closures, and more. Those were not happy times, nor were they productive times for our city’s students.

Here in 2019 we have, for the first time in our history under this form of government, the Mayor, the Superintendent, and the majority of the School Board are on the same page. This is a huge change, and a sign of progress.

Obviously, most of Council is not at this time on the same page. But what the Education Compact means is no one can run away from the conflict or the dialogue. At the next Compact meeting on April 29, any Council members not supporting full funding will need to justify their budget positions to their School Board colleagues. They may also ask for more details on the accountability scorecard the Superintendent has pledged to produce annually. They will have to talk to one another rather than snipe at one another via media comments. And even if neither side walks away completely happy, the dialogue will and must continue because, guess what, the same issues will come up next year.

Of course, Council members could just not show up, and could fail to follow through on the pledge to stay at the table made in 2017 when the Compact was unanimously adopted. We hope and expect that will not be the case. But if it does, it’s on the general public and ultimately voters to hold them accountable for negligence of duty.

5. We sorely need economic development in the long run, but downtown development and the FY 2020 budget are independent issues.

Another canard being tossed about is that Stoney’s proposed tax increase is somehow nefariously linked to the Coliseum deal that is still under negotiation. The Coliseum is a legitimate issue for discussion, but it is fundamentally separate from the FY 2020 budget. Nothing that is in the FY 2020 budget will impact whether or not the Coliseum deal happens, and nothing will happen with the Coliseum that will impact the FY 2020 budget. They are in fact separate questions.

But in the long-term, of course economic development and the City budget process are linked. If you care about equity, about bold investments to build more economic opportunity, more affordable housing, and expanding the city’s tax base so as to better fund schools, you need economic development. For a mayor in a city with a poverty rate of 24% to refuse to talk seriously with a private entity interested in investing $1 billion in a stagnant part of downtown would be an act of extreme negligence and irresponsibility.

In a structurally challenged city, you can’t be for more investments in education and human needs while at the same time being opposed to all revenue increases and opposed to large economic development projects that can grow the city tax base and provide significant numbers of jobs. The math doesn’t work.

We favor economic development that adheres to strong progressive principles: written commitments to employing local residents including persons in poverty, to significant minority and women business enterprise participation, to affordable housing, to clawbacks in case promised jobs don’t materialize, and to making sure that current revenue streams are not and cannot be diverted into the deal. If the Stoney administration negotiates a deal that meets all these criteria in a transparent way we would likely support it, and if it doesn’t we would not.

But whether this particular deal or not goes through, there is nothing wrong with a mayor seeking to leverage private investment to meet public goals. That’s merely exercising the responsibility of governance in a challenged city.

6. Mayor Levar Stoney has tried to initiate change. That took courage, and it was the right thing to do.

Any student in any Political Science 101 class anywhere in the United States would get an F for claiming that proposing a tax hike is the politically savvy move for mayors trying to win their next election. In fact, it’s a major political risk and act of courage, that exemplifies a moral seriousness about actually trying to solve the problems the electorate want to see addressed. Decades of urban politics research confirms that when mayors make bold proposals in their first terms, they are — on average — more likely to lose re-election. Put in this context, the mayor’s action is certainly morally just, but it also may be politically unwise. This should make it clear that this mayor has prioritized the prosperity and capacity building of all residents above and beyond his own political interests.

7. We have to support superintendents.

Here’s the bar quiz question that probably no one at your local establishment can answer: name all the Richmond Public Schools Superintendents since 1985.

For decades, Richmond has replayed the same story over and over: we chop and change superintendents, champion newcomers as the salvation, fail to support them when the road gets tough, and then move on or let them move on.

Jason Kamras knows education, he cares deeply about equity, and he brings a spirit of collaboration, energy, and optimism to his job. He also has worked swiftly to build a strong strategic plan, and to create sorely needed strong relationships with leaders in City Hall. He’s leaned in to hard questions and spoken with moral clarity on behalf of RPS children and principles of equity. Nor has he pretended that everything he inherited is just fine or that there are not internal changes that need to be made.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Richmond community would actually provide its superintendent the resources he or she needs to be successful, in what is truly one of the most difficult public education jobs in the United States?

We see two possible near-term futures. In the first, the RPS funding request is fully funded, and RPS is held rigorously accountable by the School Board, City Council, and the general populace for results of that funding, with periodic public updates of progress on strategic plan implementation. At the same time, Mr. Kamras (with the support of the Mayor) would be well-positioned to go to other funding sources (philanthropic, federal government) and state in full faith that Richmond has become a community that is so serious about its schools it’s willing to tax itself more — and hence that we are a community you should invest resources in. If RPS is to in fact get full long-term funding of the strategic plan, something like this must unfold.

The second scenario is one in which Mr. Kamras (because the dollars did not come through) must either scale back the strategic plan or make further cuts (on top of the $13 million already announced) to basic operations. In this situation, more time next year is spent on the political battle rather than attending to the details of plan implementation and seeking further external funding from other sources. This second scenario is one that has happened before in this town. We already know how it ends: it takes us down a path that further subjugates black and brown poor kids’ opportunities at a better life.

8. We need stronger progressive organizations in this City.

A notable list of community leaders have articulated support for Mayor Stoney’s budget, from grassroots to grasstops. Also notable is who has not been vocally against it: the city’s real estate lobby, and its business leadership more generally, has been publicly silent about the tax increase proposals. This, we believe, is largely because they understand the strategic imperative to improve educational outcomes in Richmond Public Schools.

Nonetheless, we are troubled by the relative silence of self-styled progressive organizations in Richmond on the Mayor’s budget. Some claiming to be progressive have actually lined up with libertarian-informed anti-government rhetoric championed by conservatives. Too few have recognized the fact that the hard work of delivering change means making hard choices.

It’s easy to critique power. It’s harder to use power effectively once you get it. The most effective civil rights era leaders like Wyatt Tee Walker and civil rights era mayors like Harold Washington or Maynard Jackson knew how to do both: critique power when you don’t have it, use it wisely when you do. Both pieces are critical to the toolkit of progressive change, but locally we tend to celebrate the former while ignoring or even denigrating the latter.

Here’s the bottom line. An African-American mayor, leading a city in which people of color are the majority, took the deeply courageous step of asking property owners in the city to contribute modestly more in order to be able to expand investment in the schools largely serving African-American and Hispanic children. And he did this at a time when Donald Trump is in the White House and prospects for equity at the national level have never been dimmer.

And yet “progressives” in Richmond are not enthusiastically supporting him? We need stronger, more effective, and perhaps simply new progressive organizations in town who are serious about enacting real change.

9. At the same time, we need improved, ongoing communication from City officials, at all levels.

This does not mean City Hall is without fault in the current situation. The City budget is legitimately complex, and the Stoney administration should invest more time and effort in helping citizens understand its complexity. The Town Hall presentations made in the past two months have been strong, but would have been even more effective had they started much earlier. More generally, the administration needs to be more proactive in explaining what each of its agencies are doing and why. The regard of many citizens for city government is so low that some would be stunned to learn that in fact the agencies do have concrete goals, plans, and action steps guiding the usage of funds.

More generally, City Hall needs to better educate residents on the progressive things it is already doing. Many citizens continue to be legitimately concerned about the impact of a higher real estate tax on seniors, not realizing Richmond already has a generous tax relief program in place for seniors. That is not a failure of policy, it’s a failure to communicate.

10. City Council needs more strong progressive leaders.

But let’s put responsibility ultimately where it belongs. City Council is ultimately the legislative authority of the City, and the body that authorizes the budget. City Council members generally know enough not to be taken in by outlandish claims, and they know and respect the work done by the City agencies.

We believe our current Council members are good people who care about Richmond and without exception have served the city and the community in admirable and important ways.

But they also care about getting re-elected, or what they think will get them re-elected. Given our council system, we cannot be surprised when representatives from the more affluent 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th districts express deep reluctance to raise taxes. We are surprised when a representative in the 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th district opposes change that is bluntly redistributive in a progressive direction. The 5th district, as ever, remains a swing district.

That’s the expected logic of Richmond politics. As long as we are trapped in that logic, however, we won’t have systemic change, but at best marginal, incremental improvements. Bold progressive leadership requires being able to think about the city’s needs as a whole and support difficult change even when it might be unpopular with some within one’s district. Previous political science research discusses this as targeted universalism.

Right now we do have some of that, but not enough. Nor do we have the strong, genuinely progressive citywide organizations that can help push the public argument and provide political cover for Council leaders who are willing to stick their necks out to make bold choices.

Instead, we have tolerated a local political climate that rewards listening to powerful district constituencies and a mindset of caution.

Cautious incrementalism is an understandable, even laudable, governing philosophy for Henrico County or Chesterfield County. But cautious incrementalism is just not going to get the job done in the City of Richmond, the transformational job that our 24% of residents in poverty and our 25,000 schoolchildren need our leadership to get done.

It’s time for Council to have the courage and imagination to propose a Grand Bargain: full funding of the Mayor’s budget request, but with specific commitments to heightened accountability on the usage of funds by both RPS and the City agencies. The Education Compact provides a vehicle to achieve the former, and the Superintendent has already committed to a public scorecard of progress. Legislation passed in the last year assures that starting July 1, all City agencies must publish their action plans; Council should scrutinize those plans and also demand regular updates from the Stoney administration on its performance management efforts.

Greater investment in equity in exchange for greater commitment to accountability and transparency in government: that would be a bigger win for both Richmond’s kids and Richmond taxpayers than chopping investments in equity and operations just to keep the property tax flat.

The Mayor and Superintendent have done their part to articulate and offer plans for bold change.

Council should meet that challenge, recognizing that significantly improved accountability and transparency in local government operations is worth more to most concerned citizens than a nickel on the property tax.

Muddling through is no longer good enough. This City needs for either more current Council members to embrace bold change and demonstrate the imagination needed to meet the moment, or for the general public to elect new members who are willing to do so.

Dr. Ravi K. Perry is Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Perry is immediate Past President of the Association for Ethnic Studies. He is the author/editor of three books: Black Mayors, White Majorities: The Balancing Act of Racial Politics, 21st Century Urban Race Politics: Representing Minorities as Universal Interests; and The Little Rock Crisis: What Desegregation Politics Says About Us. Perry is currently writing Black Queer Electoral Politics:Introducing America’s Openly LGBTQ Black Politicians.

Dr. Thad Williamson is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. His books include Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era and Sprawl, Justice and Citizenship: the Civic Costs of the American Way of Life. He has served in Richmond city government as the first Director of the Office of Community Wealth Building (2014–2016) and as a Senior Policy Advisor to Mayor Levar M. Stoney (2017–2018). He is currently working on a project focused on Community Wealth Building as a governance and policy paradigm suitable for advancing bold progressive goals in the 21st Century.