RVA 5X5: A Five-Part Series of Stories

by Jon Baliles

STORY #1 — The Pot Overfloweth

There have been a lot of stories this week about the $21 million surplus announced by Mayor Levar Stoney and what he is asking City Council to endorse and how to disburse it in a budget amendment vote scheduled for a Monday evening vote. “The growth of the real estate market has caused the taxable real property revenue to exceed the budgeted amount,” the mayor wrote in a letter to Council.

Dean Mirshahi at WRIC reports that out of the $17 million, $5 million would be used to improve pay scales for first responders and $3.1 million for inclement weather shelters — two things that are definitely needed and long overdue.

There is an allocation of $1,750,000 to the Department of Economic Development for “contractual increases” involving Richmond’s Diamond District and City Center projects. No one knows what this means, but the Diamond District developer made it clear to VPM News that they were not recipients of any of that allocation (so put away the conspiracy theories). Maybe an explanation is forthcoming Monday night (or maybe not).

Some of the other funding includes $1.1 million for traffic calming projects; $1 million each for the nonprofits HumanKind and Homeward to provide family crisis services and homeless services; $500,000 to NextUP RVA, a free program for Richmond Public Schools middle school students; $2 million would go to a reserve fund to help offset rising health care costs for city employees; about $450,000 for employees assisting with added translation and interpretation services; and $400,000 for the YMCA’s Help1RVA helpline for people in crisis or considering suicide.

The biggest item is $5 million for first responders, which includes $2.6 million for the Richmond Police Department, $1.9 million for the Richmond Fire Department, and $559,000 for the Department of Emergency Communications for pay adjustments that the city says were not accounted for in the pay raises approved last May.

VPM noted that “a press release from the mayor’s office said those pay adjustments would be for employees not accounted for in a $17 million increase in first-responder wages in May’s budget.”

No one thinks our first responders deserve better pay and political support more than I do, and after years of neglect the mayor is trying to play catch-up in a hurry. Better late than never. But just a note of caution that surplus monies are best spent on one-time expenses and not annual operating costs. That is a lesson that is usually repeated ad infinitum by the financial hawks on Council, the Chief Administrative Officer (no matter who it is) and the City’s financial advisors, as well as good old common sense. This is an amount that will have to be (and should be) built into next year’s budget. I hope the mayor and Council will support that without a lot of drama.

That should not be a huge problem (hopefully) because the overall number to keep in mind is (out of this year’s $838 million general fund budget) $18 million extra for a one-time real estate tax rebate given to help offset rising assessments in addition to the $21 million surplus. Which means there was a total of $39 million of revenue in excess after the close of the fiscal year.

The surplus each year is the result of completing the Comprehensive Financial Report (CAFR) that is due to the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts by December 15. It will be interesting to see the CAFR details this year with a $39 million surplus and all the federal money and revenues that were provided during the pandemic. We should hopefully be getting a public report about it during the Council meeting on Monday. I say hopefully because a presentation to Council is required by law before it is submitted to the state — but so far it does not yet appear on the agenda for Monday’s meeting. I’m sure that’s just an oversight.

And, speaking of CAFRs and oversight…

STORY #2 — When A $12 Million Oversight Is Just a Small Fraction

Since he came into office, Mayor Stoney and his original finance team (especially Lenora Reid) deserve credit for restoring the timely submission of the CAFR reports every year to the state. Mayor Jones missed so many filings that we lost count. Fixing the mess he left behind was (with little exaggeration) like raising the Titanic as we tried to reconcile spending and disbursements and receipts. It was a total disaster but Stoney and Reid and their team fixed it. Mostly.

If you time travel all the way back to just last year, there were, however, stories about an external audit that found a $12.1 million error that was subtracted from the city’s fund balance. That inflated the amount of the surplus the city has reported for several years.

Stoney, of course, blamed last year’s issue on Jones and high turnover in the finance department. He said the error had its roots all the way back to 2015, according to Chris Suarez in The Richmond Times-Dispatch in December of last year (the article also has some good video clips from that meeting).

But Greg Bussink, of the Minneapolis-based accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen, who assisted with the audit, said the problem seems to have started around 2017 and, according to the Richmond Free Press, “discovered the mistake while reviewing the city’s cash position in preparing for the annual audit. As described, $12.8 million mistakenly was added to the account several years ago. Until the mistake was caught, that money continued to roll over each year so that it artificially added to the savings balance.”


“What was discovered was there were some older, reconciling items that were carrying forward from some years in the past,” Bussink told the RTD. “It was required to reduce the cash balance and effectively reduce the fund balance and net position for the city’s general fund and then for governmental wide financial statements.”

The defense offered to Suarez at the Times-Dispatch last year was not terribly encouraging: “Administration officials also noted that the $12 million is only a small fraction of the more than $1 billion of financial activity the city records each year.” That may be a small sum compared to the total amount, but $12 million is not an insignificant number. So let’s hope this year’s CAFR is on time and in-line (and presented on Monday night). But it might help to have a grain of salt on hand — and a shot of tequila.

STORY #3 — A Necessary Investment (Still with No Timeline)

Speaking of one-time operating costs, Mayor Stoney waited until mid-December to finally ask City Council for $3.1 million that would pay for improvements, maintenance and operational costs for four inclement weather shelters after months of inaction and neglect.

As discussed last week, the city has opened two shelters, but there are no public contracts or commitments for the other two to open, even though the city back in June set an initial target date of early October for enough capacity to be up and running. Even with authorization Monday night, it is unknown how long it will take to allocate funding and get the shelters open.

Stoney actually put this statement in his press release regarding the surplus: “Taking care of our most vulnerable populations such as our homeless, families in crisis, and our youth — is not only a necessary investment in their welfare, but it’s the right thing to do. This funding will allow us to provide critical assistance in the coming months, and I appreciate Council’s support of our residents.”

The right thing to do — after months of zero sense of urgency or import. If you recall, the mayor can submit a budget amendment at any point in the year, and by September Stoney probably knew the city was looking at a sizable surplus (as the preliminary reports of the closure of the previous fiscal year arrive by mid-September). That could have gone a long way toward having shelter space available before it got cold.

Regardless, what is interesting about the allocation of the surplus is how it is divided. Earlier this summer, the city agreed (at least verbally) to a plan for a homeless shelter provided by Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC) to provide a 60-bed shelter and an allocation of about $600,000. But in October, the Administration fibbed to a Council committee and told them the plan had changed and there would be four shelters, but they forgot to inform CCC. After the meeting, the CCC stated that they had not known about the change of plan nor had a plan to implement such a strategy. Do it our way, said the mayor.

As detailed in this story, the city continued to obfuscate and the early October shelter opening was moved to early November, then mid-November (when two shelters finally did open), and now money is being allocated but no one knows when the others will open.

More interesting, though, and quite baffling, is the allocation for the four shelters, which totals $3.1 million.

• The CCC shelter on Chamberlayne Avenue will provide 60 beds and receive about $313,000;
• United Nations Church International of VA, on Cowardin Avenue is open and provides 60 beds in their gymnasium and they will receive about $1.1 million;
• RVA Sisters Keeper on Hull Street is open and provides 40 beds and is allocated about $837,000;
• Fifth Street Baptist Church on Third Avenue will provide 30 beds and receive an allocation of about $650,000.

How’s that for a government operation?

I was in search of a headache so I decided to watch the video of Thursday’s Education & Human Services Committee meeting, where Housing Director Sherill Hampton and Deputy CAO Sharon Ebert set up a word salad buffet of excuses about progress on the shelters. When asked by Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch about opening the long-delayed CCC shelter (originally set for early October), Hampton never mentioned that the city changed the plan but since there are federal funds being used, there are all kinds of extra steps that need to be taken (and we all know the federal government moves so quickly). She said she would “anticipate” that CCC would open soon but they have to “hire staff and do all of that,” and she hoped it could open by late December or January. Lynch asked about funding CCC for a month just to get them open — to do something, anything. Her question was met with a nonsensical response having little to do with the question.

When Lynch asked the simple question, “What can we do to open this shelter? Is there no avenue?” Ebert stepped up and actually said the city was “doing everything on our end to clear the roadblocks,” but “we cannot make a commitment on behalf of CCC.”

Ebert also said the city was still reviewing CCC’s permit application for zoning compliance “and then it is upon CCC to execute the contracts and return them to us.” It’s worth reminding everyone (again) that CCC had a plan ready to go since mid-summer and the city altered the plan in mid-stream (without telling CCC) and then dragged its feet for two months.

But Ebert made sure the committee knew the city wasn’t holding things up: “I don’t think it’s on us to commit when CCC will be opening.”

Lynch (as well as Councilwoman Katherine Jordan) politely pointed out there have been many missed opportunities, a lack of interest, and ignored requests for action and taking responsibility for those in need — and not just in inclement weather shelters but every month. Lynch likened it to running a health care system without an emergency room, and she re-iterated, as she has been doing for some time, a call to action. But clearly the mayor and his people have not been listening and see no urgency, and that mindset was still reflected at the podium yesterday.

Let’s see if anyone from the mayor’s office offers an explanation of the above-mentioned funding disparities and opening criteria on Monday night, or if anyone on Council sees fit to ask them to explain and justify it.

STORY #4 — A New Prescription for Vision Zero

News stories about pedestrian fatalities in the city are becoming all too common. Neighbors in the Chamberlayne Avenue corridor are rightfully upset after two pedestrians have been killed in a month and want something done about it. Tyler Layne at CBS6 reported that “Data from the DMV shows at least other six other crashes involving pedestrians along Chamberlayne in 2022. That’s up from three total pedestrian-involved crashes reported in 2021.”

The mayor set out an ambitious Vision Zero plan in 2017 to “eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” Those efforts have had mixed success but lately the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. If you look at the city’s Vision Zero dashboard of pedestrian fatalities, the desired goal is zero per year (or as low as you can get), but it looks more like a roller coaster and this year it is headed back up. The graph shows there were five pedestrian deaths in 2016, nine in 2017, five in 2019, seven in 2020, four in 2021.

Brantley Tyndall, Director of Sportsbacker’s Bike Walk RVA said “there have been eight pedestrian deaths in 2022. That’s a 100% increase from 2021 when there were four.” Statewide, Tyndall said pedestrian fatalities are up 34%, and regionally, they’re up 36%.” The city provided Layne of CBS6 with a “list of twelve pedestrian safety improvements that have either been completed or are in the works on Chamberlayne.” A good start, but are there more ideas that could help? What impact will those projects have and which are the easiest ones that can be fast-tracked?

The dashboard also shows eight vehicular deaths and one motorcycle fatality, for a total of 17 total so far in 2022. If we are going to be a city that tries to promote and expand multiple means of transit and mobility, then we have to have a plan and implementation strategy that is serious, committed, and sustained. Talking about it won’t save lives or prevent injuries. I have said for years that Richmonders are horrible drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. We need to look after all modes of transit and transportation.

And with major corridors like Broad Street, Richmond Highway, Midlothian Turnpike, and Hull Street, there are a LOT of improvements that can be made for all modes — and not all of them are complicated and expensive. Some, like Ross Catrow often espouses, are as simple as temporary barriers and lane closures with cones or barriers as the first step to evaluate the impact and determine next steps. Not hard.

Some include simply painting lines on asphalt as a start (which has been done but not often enough). I advocated for 3-D crosswalks at particularly busy intersections years ago, which are not only super cool (and we certainly have the local artists to do it), but they cause drivers to slow down as they begin to perceive the 3-D effect. But I was told that was not allowed — and yet they appear in other cities.

Don’t you love bureaucracy!?

Making our streets safer for everyone starts with crawling and movement, which leads to baby steps and walking and then hitting your stride.

STORY #5 — Numbers Going in the Wrong (Or No) Direction

This story is made up of two sets of not-great numbers, one headed in the wrong direction and one not moving at all.

First, the Richmond Free Press reports on the revelation from Monday’s School Board meeting that enrollment at Richmond Public Schools is falling rather dramatically. That can be somewhat expected in the wake of the pandemic as some parents moved out of the city, some home-schooled, and others moved their kids to private schools that opened much sooner than RPS.

“RPS lists 21,993 students on its rolls from prekindergarten to 12th grade, or 5.5 percent fewer than the 23,154 students enrolled in September 2019,” which apparently is “enough students to fill a high school or two elementary schools.”

On the positive side, RPS Chief of Staff Michelle Hudacsko noted that enrollment as of last week almost matched the number from the all-virtual enrollment in the fall of 2020. Enrollment this fall was up slightly by 360 students compared to the fall of 2021, and Head Start and preschool were almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Enrollment is key as it helps determine the amount of state budget support, and we know the RPS budget is an issue at City Hall every year.

But with that is the issue of the shrinking number of school age children (according to the U.S. Census) in the city overall. The Free Press notes that in 2000, there were about 38,000 school age kids (20% of population), that number declined to 34,000 school age children, or 17% of population. In 2020, the number of school age children was below 30,000 which was about 12% of the population (which overall had been growing).

An even bigger worry than the number of total students is “the data that continues to show a major share of Richmond’s students are unable to read, write or do basic math with proficiency,” which could be a reason why some parents are choosing other options. Those are bad numbers any way you look at them.

But the other part of this story has a worse set of numbers — zero. That is the number of “Violence Interrupters” hired by the city so far; and 2023 is upon us. Tannock Blair at WRIC has the story that 10 months after the announcement by Mayor Stoney and then-Police Chief Smith that “The violence interrupters were intended to serve as mediators for people at risk of committing violence. Ten months later, the question stands — where are they?”

Good question.

In April, they advertised for the positions, and in June the delays in hiring were blamed on background checks. In September, then-Chief Smith said the program would “launch soon” and in October, the city said one supervisor was hired, two were in the hiring process, and one position was reposted. Since then, nada.

Councilwoman Reva Trammell wants to know what’s going on and is asking pretty basic questions such as: “How many did you hire? How many are still there? What is their role? What are their hours?”
More good questions. Good luck getting the answers.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. This column has been republished with permission from RVA 5X5.