Tag 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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Filed under Budget, City Council, City Hall, Dwight Jones

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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Richmond’s Deskgate 2010

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

A $36,000 desk is at the center of the latest Richmond controversy. I’m dubbing it “Deskgate“. Technically the desk cost $11,000 to build. (technically it’s not finished, is the wrong size and needs to be re-built) (technically the desk cost 11,000 because of overtime). You get to that $36,000 figure if you count the $25,000 the city had to pay when one of the people building it suffered a groin injury with a saw. (not going to get into more detail about that). Seriously, I’m getting a headache and as Councilman Chris Hilbert said today, “You absolutely can’t make this stuff up.”

Deskgate started yesterday evening when City Auditor Umesh Dalal released his latest investigation. Two scathing reports that blast the city’s department of Parks and Recreation for mis-use of taxpayer money. Then came word that the department’s director of five years, J.R. Pope, resigned. I’m told by multiple sources the auditor’s report played a role in his resignation, but was not the only reason.

The Allegations:

A new desk was ordered up for the Pine Camp Community Center in North Richmond. Two employees spent 135 hours of overtime to build the desk. The hours were approved by several levels of management, including the Superintendent of Citywide Maintenance, the Operations Manager and the Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, J.R. Pope. The city auditor estimates the desk could have been built-in 40 hours by a trained carpenter. The auditor calls the whole ordeal “unnecessary” and alleges it was “made to collect overtime pay.”

The report also highlights the mis-use of city owned vehicles. The undercover investigation revealed that over 20 days a vehicle was taken outside City limits to Henrico or Chesterfield 18 times, 16 trips were made during work hours. One trip was made to Chesterfield County so the employee could look at buying a new car.  The auditor says there appears to be a lack of management oversight.

Mayor Dwight Jones responded to the report immediately saying the allegations are of “great concern. We hate to see these kinds of problems take place, and we want to act quickly to correct and improve operations. Thus far, we have placed the Department of Parks and Recs under the interim direction of Deputy CAO Dr. Carolyn Graham. A national search for a new director will take place immediately. Disciplinary hearings have been ordered for the employees involved in the improper incidents.”

J.R. Pope:

Pope was appointed by former Mayor Doug Wilder and has been with the city for 5 years. We’re told Pope is not interested in speaking publicly at this time. The date of his resignation is not known, and I’m told it is partly to do with the investigation, but that there are several other reasons for his departure.

Reaction:

The $36,000 desk was for the Pine Camp Community Center in Councilman Chris Hilbert’s district. He says, “it’s outrageous!” Hilbert has been fighting for years for lighting to be added to the parking lot for the center. “A registration desk means nothing to the people who come to Pine Camp. If we waste money on a desk, we can put in lights out there to secure the safety of the people.” He went on to say, ” We need lighting, We need performing arts programs and fine arts programs.”

City Council President Kathy Graziano is also upset at the waste of time and resources. She says, “Clearly there was a management problem here and it’s the responsibility of the Administration to address that. This is why we have an auditor and that’s why we need to keep going into these departments, making sure that our management team has management skills and that taxpayer dollars are being put to the best use.”

And some who worked closely with Pope say the wrong man was let go. They question why Pope resigned, but no other people who signed off on overtime or actually abused city resources is gone. Chris Hull is the president of the James River Outdoor Coalition. He says, “No one supports the mismanagement of city funds, money is tight, but we’d also like to recognize the many tremendous things that he (Pope) has done for our city over the years.”

Maureen Egan is the President of Friends of the James River Park, a volunteer organization. She says, “I honestly think the wrong guy has left. I’m saddened by his leaving and I wish the Mayor had not accepted his resignation.” She says Pope was honored by a state agency in September for his work on city parks. His department was also honored by the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, (A.C.O.R.N.) just last week. Egan sites Pope’s work on the Forest Hill lake restoration as an example. “That is a project that came in under budget, $145,000 dollars under budget, and ahead of schedule.” She goes on to say, “He understood that people want to take pride in their parks and he brought that to Richmond in a way that hadn’t been obvious before.”

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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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