Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2015  
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  City Council Goes on Shopping Spree
March 19, 2015

The City of Richmond is facing a serious budget challenge for next fiscal year 2015-16, and the budget compilation process has just started and will end with adoption in July. The Charter charges the city manager and mayor to prepare  “…an annual budget for submission to the City Council..”

The budget process is a bottoms-up effort that begins with requests from each department that are then analyzed and modified by the city manager to recognize the resources available and the city’s priorities. While the city council has to ultimately approve the budget, the city council is supposed to be the last stop, not the first one.

But a disturbing new trend appeared at this weeks’ City Council meeting. Several City Council members introduced measures to place hundreds of thousands of dollars of items in next year’s budget as stand-alone measures.

The first was a $50,000 appropriation for the newly formed Youth Council. This organization, which is intended to offer young people an opportunity to get involved in an advisory capacity in City government is, on the face, a good thing. It was set up nine month ago to have up to eighteen members, but only fourteen people have applied, and all have been appointed. A far as I know, the young people on this Council are smart, motivated and prepared to discharge their duties admirably.

But what I have a problem with is that the City Council majority voted the Youth Council an unprecedented $50,000 budget for next year. The fourteen members will get $8,640 ($617 each) for clipper cards, $12,960 ($926 each) in “stipends, $3,240 ($231 each) in food, $10,400 for staff and $10,260 for “grants.” All this from a 2015-2016 budget that has not even been compiled yet and could well be millions in the red.

Shopping Spree

That was bad enough. The next item was a set of restrooms for the outdoor play area at Shields-Reid Park, estimated to cost $250,000. Shields-Reid Community Center already has restroom that are open when the center is open, Monday, Wednesday, Friday,9:00am-5:30pm and Tuesday, Thursday9:00am-7:00pm. The only time restrooms are not available is on nights and weekends. No City restrooms in parks are open at night. After heated discussion, the City Council directed that a porta-potty be provided at a cost of perhaps $100 per week. This is not about the need for a restroom, which is clear. It’s about the process, lack of research into options and costs, and lack of priority setting for similar needs in parks all over Richmond.

The final item was a memorial bench and plaque at the Nevin Community Center for a respected neighborhood volunteer who recently died. While such items can be procured for a few hundred dollars and are typically donated by friends and family of the deceased, a $4,000 budget was suggested. The Council eventually settled on a $1,000 budget.

None of the three items was budgeted in the current fiscal year, which is running a multi-million deficit. This kind of impulsive and profligate spending is not what the Charter envisioned, and it is an exercise of poor public policy.

See story below by Mike Aldax of Richmond Standard:
Council members scolded over spending measures amid Richmond budget deficit
March 19, 2015 by Mike Aldax
Richmond City Council members who are members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance were accused Tuesday of attempting to spend money the deficit-ridden city doesn’t have by bypassing city staff and guilt-tripping fellow council members into voting for them.
The City of Richmond is struggling to close a $7 million budget deficit that threatens to cut an array of city services and programs.
On Tuesday’s council agenda, however, spending items up for a vote included a new bathroom at Shields-Reid park, $50,000 for a program aimed at encouraging youth participation in government and a memorial bench at Nevin Community Center that was initially estimated to cost $4,000, but reduced after the dais decided in just a few seconds that it could be done far less expensively.
The items, all pitched by RPA members, had not been presented to, nor approved, by City Manager Bill Lindsay and his staff, who have been busy trying to balance the city’s most pressing needs as it struggles to close the deficit.
Mayor Tom Butt said spending measures on the council agenda appear to be a new tactic being used by RPA members to get the group’s pet projects passed. As part of an apparent strategy to secure votes, the RPA is attempting to make councilmembers “look bad” for voting against children or certain community groups, Butt said.
For example, RPA members on council questioned how fellow councilmembers could vote against funding the Richmond Youth Council, a group formed by RPA member Gayle McLaughlin when she was mayor. According to Butt, many proven youth groups are waiting in line for $50,000 in funds, and thus such decisions should not be unilaterally decided by the council but rather allocated by city staff in the context of the budget deficit.
While residents have demanded a bathroom at Shields-Reid park for years, Lindsay pointed out that there is currently a bathroom inside the park’s community center, while other parks in Richmond have no bathroom at all.
At several points during Tuesday’s meeting, new Councilmember Vinay Pimple shot down plans to fund RPA-led agenda items citing a lack of adequate analysis on costs.
Butt called the RPA’s latest strategy a “bad exercise of public policy.”
“If somebody in Richmond wants something, you can go find a council member, get that council member to put it on the agenda,’ Butt said. “And then you put all these other council members in the position…’Are you going to vote against these kids? You going to vote against this person who gave everything to the community? You going to vote against the people at Shields-Reid who need a place to pee?’ It never stops. You can make a case for things of life or death, and continue to put your council members in a position of voting them up, or voting them down and looking bad. ”
The mayor said he “resents” the strategy and hopes it is not the start of a new trend on Richmond council.