Tag Archives: Richmond 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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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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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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Filed under Audit, City Investigation

City Loses Financial Guru

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

One day after I write about the lack of stability in the city’s “Economic Development Director” position, we lose another one. Marcus Jones, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer for Finance, is leaving for a BIG promotion. He’s been hired to run the day-to-day operations of the city of Norfolk.

In a statement released late this afternoon, Mayor Dwight Jones (no relation to Marcus) called Jones’ new job, “bittersweet”. Mayor Jones went on to say, “When I recruited Marcus to Richmond, I knew what a great talent we were bringing to our city. The work that he has done over the past 16 months has met or surpassed every expectation that I had…. This is clearly an important  move for Marcus’ career, and he deserves this opportunity to ascend to the city manager role.”

Marcus Jones

Mayor Jones tapped Marcus to be his CAO of Finance soon after taking office. Marcus Jones came to Richmond from Norfolk, so it’s not a surprise he’d want to go back.  Marcus is leaving, just as the city is about to embark on its all important budget process. Mayor Jones says Marcus Jones will be missed. No word tonight on how long the city plans to take to fill this new opening.

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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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Filed under City Council, City Hall, City Hall Talk, Dwight Jones

Back By Popular Demand

Rachel DePompa – bio | email

The blog is back. It didn’t really go anywhere. I’ve just been lazy in posting lately. I blog when I have free time at work, which is becoming more and more infrequent. This month has been crazy busy. It’s sweeps and after tomorrow I will have had 4 special reports air this month. Excuses, Excuses… but I promise to make an effort to get back to the blogging this week. And, with that said, on to the politics of Richmond…

The Budget: City Council passed the budget Monday night in an 8 to 1 vote. Councilman Bruce Tyler was the lone holdout, but his vote was more a protest to an item left in the budget. Overall, the budget is about $50,000 dollars more than Mayor Dwight Jones had submitted to council. A council spokesperson says total expenditures in the budget were cut by $5.2 million. ($4.6 million is the result of state cuts to education) The council also restored funds for the Spanish Immersion program; a popular class in certain elementary schools where students learn math and science in spanish. The budget lists several interesting expenditures, that I’m already looking in to for a future story. Can’t say more than that yet, because my competition reads my blog!

Mayor’s Response: Last night, Dwight Jones was touting “how few changes” the council made to his budget proposal.  He said, “I am pleased to that City Council has embraced our outcomes-based budgeting plan with an overwhelming vote.” He went on to say, “This outcomes-based approach will allow us to more thoroughly shape a vision for the future of the city.”

Night Club Ordinance: The mayor and several council members introduced a new ordinance to help the city better regulate problem night clubs. It’s basically a dance hall permit, which other localities already have in place. It applies to businesses where dance floors take up more than 10% of the business.  If approved, the ordinance would require establishments to obtain a $100 annual permit. The permit could be revoked after an administrative hearing if the business is deemed a public nuisance. Club owners and event promoters would also have to pass criminal background checks. The ordinance would also establish requirements for security. So, how do businesses in Richmond feel about the ordinance???? Looking for those answers now. Let me know what you think of  the plan.

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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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