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Richmond Council approves budget with significant pay hikes for police, firefighters

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The Richmond City Council — top row, Katherine Jordan (from left), Reva Trammell and Kristen Larson; middle row, Stephanie Lynch, Cynthia Newbille and Ann-Frances Lambert; and bottom row, Ellen Robertson, Andreas Addison and Michael Jones — met virtually on Jan. 4, 2021, before the members were sworn into office in council chambers at City Hall.

The city of Richmond’s next annual budget will include a $17 minimum wage and a pay increase of at least 5% for all city employees starting July 2.

The City Council approved the wage changes Monday with the adoption of a $838.7 million general fund budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year that also includes a revamped pay plan for police officers and firefighters, all of whom will get raises of at least 10%.

“It is certainly a budget to be proud of,” Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders said after highlighting the wage increases and the addition of $17 million for the public safety pay plan.

Pay for city police and firefighters became a central theme of Mayor Levar Stoney’s budget after employees last year said their relatively low wages had played a part in significant turnover and recruiting challenges, as pay for the same jobs in neighboring jurisdictions is better.

The administration received mixed reaction from employees, as a few officers have said they still have issues with management or concerns about the elimination of some pay incentive programs tied to professional development and specialized training.

Only two people spoke in the public hearing before the council approved the budget Monday night.

Martin Wegbreit, a member of the oversight board for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, criticized officials for replacing the city’s annual budget contribution to the fund with dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act.

City officials last year heralded the approximately $150 million it received from the federal aid package to assist its recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic. The council at the time agreed to a two-year spending plan that includes $10 million for the trust fund in the upcoming fiscal year.

But the city’s plans “zero out” local funding for affordable housing, said Wegbreit, who is also a housing attorney with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and a member of the multifaith community advocacy group Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities.

“Is this [the] message City Council wants to send to affordable housing developers willing to start filling the shortage of 25,000 affordable rental units in Richmond? ... Those federal ARPA dollars are intended to supplement local funding,” he said. “They are not intended to replace local funding.”

The other speaker, Brandon Graves, a program manager for the nonprofit Literacy Lab, implored the council to approve the restoration of approximately $30,000 for the organization that the mayor had proposed to cut from the budget.

The City Council recently agreed to restore the funding, as updated revenue projections and fund transfers meant an additional $3.7 million was available to spend. The council voted to use the funds to increase funding for a few community organizations and nondepartmental agencies, including $571,000 for the Richmond Ambulance Authority.

The ambulance authority sought a $3.5 million funding increase to hire more staff, but administration officials said they were wary of giving the money due to unresolved questions about the authority’s operations and finances, and are seeking an independent review of the authority.

Some council members also sought to add $1 million to help the GRTC bus system match a state grant supporting its fare-free policy through next year. The mayor and his administration, however, said the transit company should use its existing subsidies from the city, its own operational funding or leftover federal pandemic aid to cover those costs next year.

GRTC officials have since said they intend to figure out how to match the state grant in the coming weeks.

After the budget vote on Monday, all council members thanked their staff and administration officials for collaborating with the governing body on finalizing the spending plan.

“I’m just really proud of the work everyone has done,” said Councilwoman Katherine Jordan. “There’s always more that you wish you could have gotten into any given budget, but I think this is something everyone can be proud of.”

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