Category Archives: City Hall

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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Hiring Bonanza at City Hall

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

New faces are coming to City Hall!

Mayor Dwight Jones has hired for three key positions, including one job that’s been open for more than a year and a half.  That’s right, the city has finally hired a Director of Economic Development. Councilman Chris Hilbert famously worried the job had a “reputation” and consistently asked the administration about the vacancy over the last two years. Here’s more on that exchange.

Economic Development:

Lee Downey

There’s been 14 directors in 15 years. Mayor Jones acknowledge the jobs stigma, but also reiterated the fact that economic development was happening in Richmond, director or not.  Jones said today, “We’ve had so many economic development directors our Deputy (Peter Chapman) has been doing double duty, and so, an announcement today is welcome news.”

Jones hired Lee Downey, who starts May 2nd. Since 2008 Downey served as the vice president of business development for McKinney and Company in Ashland. He’s also worked as Marketing Manager for McGuireWoods LLP and as a business development project manager for Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). During his time as VEDP, the city says Downey managed a variety of business development projects, creating more than 4,000 new jobs and $375 million in new investment for the state.

Downey said today, “I’m excited, I’m excited! My family lives in the city, we love the city. My background, my love, my career, my excitement is economic development and blending the two is a dream come true for me as a career. Being able to have my job be something that I’m so passionate about is exciting.”

As for the job’s notorious turnover rate, Downey says, “no reservations in that point.”

Chris Hilbert said today he’s excited to finally see the job filled. “The Picasso exhibit, the VCU men’s basketball team, the Squirrels… people who live in the counties are coming into the city now because of these things and we need to build on that.”

Mayor Jones said, “It also would not have helped us to choose somebody because the gun was at our neck. We wanted to make sure that we got somebody good. Somebody who had the training and the expertise. Someone with a record of having done economic development. A lot of times (the city’s) named people to economic development because they’re a good guy. We need somebody who can get the job done.”

Parks and Rec:

Dr. Norman Merrifield

This is another job a lot of people in the city had their eyes on. Former director, J.R. Pope left in the middle of a scandal involving a scathing audit report on his department. You can get the back story here on “Desk-gate”. 

Today the Mayor announced he’s put Dr. Norman Merrifield in the position. Merrifield starts on May 21st. He most recently served as the administrative executive officer and director of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.  He’s also served as director of parks and recreations for the city of El Paso, TX.

 

 

Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Finance:

Eric M. Tucker

A position I usually dub the “finance guru”! Marcus Jones early this year to take a job as the City Manager in Norfolk. You can read all about that here.  Today the mayor announced he had selected Eric M. Tucker for the position. Tucker comes to Richmond from Prince George’s County, Maryland and Detroit, Michigan where he coordinated ratings efforts leading to upgrades for both jurisdictions’ bond ratings. The city says Tucker managed a turnaround of a $63 million deficit into an $18 million surplus.

Tucker said today, “Having worked in Maryland and being familiar with this area, I know that Virginia has historically been one of the best-managed states in the country and Richmond is now becoming one of the best-managed cities. I certainly hope to be part of, as the mayor said, continuing that process to make this a top-tier city in the state and in this country.”

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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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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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Breaking Down Richmond’s Budget

Rachel DePompa – bio | email   

It’s here! It’s here! (You’d think I was writing about a new Harry Potter movie hitting the theaters.) Nope! I’m referring to the Mayor’s 2011 proposed Budget. To a journalists it means lots of stories this week. It takes a few days to comb through all the fine print and pages. For now, I’ll give you the quick run through.

No New taxes. No major cuts to service. No furloughs for city employees. (No raises, either) And only 11 layoffs out of more than 4,000 positions. We’d been reporting about a $30 million shortfall. Well, it grew to $34 million. So how did they fill the gap without cutting services? They cut the fat and duplicate services. It looks like Richmond is trying to be more efficient. Mayor Dwight Jones said at the meeting, “We can not tax our way out of this situation, nor can we cut our way out of these financial challenges. We’ve got to implement new strategies that allow the city to weather the storm while positioning ourselves for stronger and sustainable growth.” The mayor called his budget an economic recovery strategy and went on to say, “We’re intentional about trying to change the way city government operates.”

I caught up with City Council President Kathy Graziano today. She said she liked the Mayor’s presentation and hopes, “that working together we can begin to be a city where people say, ‘hey we can get stuff done in Richmond.”

The budget:

*$637.2 million

*Proposes Semi-annual Property Tax payments. (you pay half in January/half in June) Projected to save the city $1.7 million each year. Currently the city borrows upwards of $70 million each year. The two payments will

*Gets tough on Delinquent Parking Fees. There are 47,819 outstanding parking tickets in the last three years on 33,548 plates. The bill totals $3,000,000.

*Adds a $30 Administrative Fee for taxpayers who are late paying real estate and personal property taxes

*Combines city and school plans for a projected savings of $3,000,000. (Currently the two city schools employees are on a different plan) The switch also means premiums will not go up.

*Dissolves the Broad Street Community Development Authority. (Expected to save the city $2.5 million each year)

Council will set the tax rate on April 12th. It currently sits at $1.20 per 100 dollars of assessed value. There are proposals to raise it, but my sources say that won’t happen. The council will vote on the Mayor’s budget on May 24th.

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