Category Archives: City Council

City Hall’s 60 Million Dollar Spending Spree

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Let the quibbling begin! This week we learned Richmond’s Mayor had scored big. He negotiated a deal with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA) for $60 million. The money is a decades-old debt, owed to the city from when the Downtown Expressway was built. It was supposed to be repaid in 2022 when the road was officially turned over to the city. Jones got it much earlier than expected and kicked off a welcome “firestorm.” Everyone has an opinion on what to do with the money.

Which brings us to today. Three city council members called for a press conference. It was clear, the mayor’s announcement of the money and some of his ideas for spending it had hurt some feelings. Marty Jewell wondered  aloud why the Mayor hasn’t yet asked for council member opinions on how it should be spent. It was clear today, we’re in for a long debate over how the money should be budgeted.

The mayor made said on Tuesday, he believes some of the money should go to the communities that were pushed aside when the Expressway was built.  He’s targeting poverty and believes several projects in those area would boost the tax base and spur development. He’s made suggestions about helping build a new ball park and re-paving areas like Jeff Davis Highway.

Reva Trammell, Marty Jewell and Bruce Tyler focused on Richmond’s historically high tax rates. Trammell says the city should find ways to lower the admissions tax, meal’s tax and real estate tax. Tyler added, “At the end of the day we have to figure out a way to reduce taxes so that we can take the burden off the citizens.”

Jewell said, “clearly there are a lot of needs. Some of his approach (the mayor) makes sense, but then there are other ideas. We’re not short of them on council.”  Trammell added, “The money belongs to the citizens of Richmond, not the mayor, not the council.”

Council President Kathy Graziano was not a part of the press conference. She said today that the city should be cautious with the money; spending as much time “saving it” as spending it.

Now the city doesn’t actually get any of this money until at least November and you probably won’t see it budgeted until the 2012-13 budget cycle. So, there’s several months for the mayor and council to get together and work out a plan.

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Noise Ordinance Found Unconstitutional

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Attorney Steven Benjamin has been leading the charge for months now, consistently lambasting the city’s new noise ordinance as “unconstitutional”. He gave countless interviews to media outlets and even took up a case for free to fight it. Sure enough, a judge agreed with him this week.

Richmond General District Chief Judge Robert Pustilnik declared the ordinance unconstitutional. He ruled it was  too broad and unfairly promotes religion.

The ordinance prohibits noise that can be heard 50 feet away after 11:00 at night. Violators face a class 2 misdemeanor and up to 6 months in jail. The ordinance allows for religious music, church bells and organs to be heard at anytime.

Steven Benjamin said after the hearing, “The city’s ordinance is completely unconstitutional on its face. It criminalizes noise that one makes within one’s own home and it advances religion and religious noise. The ordinance makes it impossible for people to know whether the sounds they make in their daily living are lawful sounds or not.”

Judge Pustilnik gave the city until December 14th to appeal his ruling to Circuit Court. If no appeal is made then Pustilnik will dismiss the charges against the four band members. Either way, it appears City Council will have to take up the issue again.  Assistant City Attorney Greg Lukanuski says the city will take its time deciding whether or not to appeal.

Steven Benjamin said, “I hope the city will make the responsible decision and not waste anymore time defending this ridiculous thing, and will instead go to work and give us the noise ordinance that we deserve.”

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling, Councilman Charles Samuels (who led the way for reforming the noise ordinance) said he was, ” disappointed by the outcome, but respects the judge’s decision.” Samuels went on to say, ” Much has been made of the issue with our city’s current noise law. After the Virginia Supreme Court’s Tanner decision nullified the “unreasonably loud” standard in 2009, I worked with the city attorney’s office to review what other options we had. Since April I have been meeting with a workgroup to craft a new noise ordinance which I hope to introduce in December or January of 2011. ”

Here’s a link to a blog with more information on the “Tanner Decision” from the fine folks at VA Lawyers Weekly.

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Search Continues for Economic Guru

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

Help Wanted:

The job’s been open for more than a year. The city is still  looking for a “Director of Economic Development”. We learned today that a candidate was flown in, interviewed and offered the job, but was unable to accept for personal reasons. So, the city’s moved on to another person. 

The news came out today at a lunch between the Mayor and City Council. Councilman Chris Hilbert wanted to know why the job has been so hard to fill. He credited the Mayor’s ability to keep people in their jobs and stop the turnover, but wondered if that particular position had a “reputation”. The Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer, Byron Marshall, admitted it’s because that position has not been stable for years. Marshall said, “prior to this administration and even the last administration, there have just been a number of Economic Development Directors. It’s like a revolving door and that gives people pause.”

Mayor Jones urged patience and said the city is close to finally filling the position. And he said, “we ought not to imply that economic development is not going on. It will be great to have that one other person in the shop as another tool in our tool kit, but economic development is aggressively taking place.”

Marshall added that he’s been looking for a specific set of skills. He says this job is not just about attracting big companies. It’s also about bringing in small businesses and growing the ones that are already here.

I hear there could be an announcement by the end of the month.

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Mayor Wants New Budget Deadline

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

It seems like I need an office at City Hall because I’m about to start spending a lot more time in the building. Fall proposals and deadlines are ramping up and budget time is already here. Mayor Dwight Jones officially began the process today, by asking City Council members for more time to put together his 2011 budget.  He said, “This will be the first, truly, outcome based budget that Richmond has ever had. We’re not just putting numbers together. We have goals and priorities to meet.”

The Mayor is asking the council to allow him to present his final budget proposal on April 7th. By law, the council has to pass a budget by May 31st. The  mayor is also offering to hold more joint meetings with council members during the budget process.

Councilman Marty Jewell says he doesn’t mind extending the Mayor’s deadline. He said, “It’s a good idea. Usually we wait until February/March to get his budget. Well, this way we’re able to input into that budget all year-long.”

Council member Chris Hilbert says he’s concerned about not having enough time. He said, “This is a big, thick, document that we have to go through line by line and we owe it to the taxpayers to be able to deliberate over that.”

Bruce Tyler also says April 7th is too late to wait for the budget report. Tyler added, “It’s going to be very difficult for us to ask questions and get good answers back. So, I believe we need to roll it back to the traditional date.”

City Council members will have the final say on this issue. The mayor must formally submit the proposal and it must be approved by the council.

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Summer Vacation Over, Council Falls back into Action

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

I took a little vacation from blogging since there were no City Council meetings in August. I’m back and ready to keep you up to date on the goings on at City Hall! And there’s much to talk about. For one, that 6.7 million dollar surplus. Mayor Dwight Jones says, “I think it’s wonderful news for the city. We want to be a triple bond rated city and that’s going to require us to be very fiscally responsible.”  The Mayor recommended the money go towards a few programs and that two million was set aside for an emergency fund, which City Council approved on Monday.

Also announced this week, Richmond was awarded $2.4 million in Neighborhood Stabilization funds from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to address foreclosed and abandoned properties in the Highland Park, Barton Heights and Church Hill neighborhoods. Twenty foreclosed properties are being renovated with the hope of getting them rented out or even possible sold.  According to a release from the city, marketing and sale of the properties will be provided to income qualified households for homeownership at a discounted price.  Down payment and closing cost incentives will be available to qualified buyers.

And here’s a list of  the homes being renovated…

Church Hill:

2616 P Street /1309 N. 23rd Street/ 822,824,826 N. 27th  Street/ 1220 30th Street/ 1435 N. 32nd Street/1305 N. 37th Street

Highland Park:

3600 Delaware Ave/3315 Florida Ave/1030 Fourqurean Lane/3020 Garland Avenue/ 509 Gladstone Ave/1805 Rose Ave/1700 4th Ave/ 1201 Spruce Street/1203 Willow Street

Barton Heights:

206 Home Street/ 1802 Monteiro Avenue/ 3023 Montrose Avenue

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City Council Members Call for GRTC Task Force

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

GRTC Task Force:

The GRTC may be under new scrutiny this year. Two city council members, (Bruce Tyler of District 1/Doug Conner from the 9th) want to create a special GRTC Task Force. Here’s a link to the actual ordinance under consideration. Under the proposal, the council would appoint 9 voting members to recommend new legislation, plans, policies and programs that promote efficient mass transit in the city. The task force would also look at working with interested private organizations to improve the service and the efficiency of the GRTC.

Bruce Tyler came up with the idea and told me, “Personally, I believe the GRTC could have done a better job of managing their business. At the same time, I’ve gotten a lot of folks saying they’re doing a great job. I feel like the only way to get to the truth in the matter is to have a task force.

Doug Conner is a co-patron of the ordinance and said, “I thought i t was a great idea, because, once and for all, we can look into the GRTC and figure out the pros and cons.”

Tyler (who has been a constant critic of the agency) pointed out that the City Council gives the GRTC about 11 million dollars a year. He said, “I want us to look at innovative solutions to take th is into the next 20, 30, 40 years. I also want us to look at this from an efficiency standpoint. We can do it better. We can do it more cost-effective.”

I caught up with GRTC Ceo John Lewis. He tells me that he welcomes the extra attention. He said, “I’m excited and pleased that the council is willing to put together a comprehensive task force. Hopefully, with the expertise needed, to really take a comprehensive look and how we operate public transit in the region.” Lewis says his agency was already vetted by the federal government, state government, and by a panel of peers. He says national experts named the GRTC the leading transit system in the country in 2008. He says, “We’re the only system in the country of our size that does not have a sustainable revenue source.” He says of the task force, “let’s be bold with the opportunity. let’s look at how we can make this system better; how we can make it sustainable; how we can make it long-lasting. Anything else would be a disservice.”

The full city council has to approve the creation of this task force. It could take up the issue this September. If created, this task force would have one year to meet and come up with recommendations.

Extras: And, just wanted to say thanks to this local blogger for the shout-out. 🙂

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Around Richmond: The Summer Edition

Rachel DePompa – bio | email   

So, here’s what been going on around the city this summer.

Child Left on School Bus Circus: Well, it almost felt like that Abbott and Costello skit ‘Who’s on First’. Who’s investigating? What? No.. Who? 

The hours after a 4-year-old was left on a Richmond city school bus where frustrating (to say the least). I’ve covered several stories in Richmond where a child was left in a hot car or van and an investigation was always immediate. But on this day, a Richmond Police spokesperson told us they were not looking into the matter. We were told it was a “school issue.” That immediately seemed odd, because Richmond City Schools have no criminal powers. And in recent months, Richmond has had a history of charging people in these type of incidents. The child has asthma and is autistic and was on that bus in the heat for more than an hour. The child’s mother made a very interesting point. She said, “If it were me. If I had done that. I’d be sitting in jail.”  That really stuck in my head….

Eventually after several calls to Richmond Police and to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, we were told an investigation was underway. The next day, charges were filed. On Wednesday, the school system announced a plan to add a new safety measure to all of its school buses.

Public Works:  Richmond is looking for a new director of Public Works. Dexter White has taken a job in Atlanta. He will become that city’s deputy director of Public Works. He’s been Richmond’s head of PW since March of 2008. White leaves his post at the end of the month.

Animal Control: Several sources tell me meetings and brainstorming are underway this week to figure out who should control, Animal Control. After the city dissolved its Department of General Services, the Mayor’s Administration recommended Animal Control go to Public Works. However, there was an instant backlash to that idea in the community and among a few City Council members. Some argued that Animal Control should be a function of the Richmond Police Department. City leaders are privately debating the issue this week. Chris Beschler will formulate a recommendation and give it to CAO Byron Marshall. Marshall will update City Council members on the new plan, later this summer.

Office of Minority Business Development: The Mayor’s office announced this week that it has officially created a director position for the office of Minority Business Development. According to a press release, the position did not exist when Mayor Dwight Jones took office. This is also a step in fulfilling a campaign promise to increase the presence of minority owned businesses and minority participation in projects. It looks like Vicki Rivers will get the job. She’s essentially been working in the position since July 1st, but most re-apply.

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