The Richmond City Council on Monday voted unanimously to adopt a $772.8 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, after delays intended to resolve a series of proposed changes to the plan.
Police officers and firefighters said Monday that they were disappointed with the budget, but council members who prioritized a 3.25% base raise for city employees and initiatives meant to improve police accountability, public safety and social justice said it was the best they could do with $28.7 million in projected revenue increases.
“This budget does not meet all of the city’s needs, and in many areas it falls extremely short,” said 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.
The adopted budget is about $2.5 million larger than the plan Mayor Levar Stoney introduced in March, based on updated real estate tax revenue projections. The final plan is 3.9% larger than the current year’s budget.
In addition to the 3.25% raises, the city will give some employees a bigger pay bump if their wages are below the market rate for their position. The city will save money by suspending funding for roughly 600 vacant jobs, which comprise about 16% of the 3,700 positions in the city’s general fund budget.
In a final public hearing before the budget vote, more than half of the approximately 30 speakers were police officers or firefighters who said their relatively low wages have led to led to staffing shortages in police precincts and firehouses.
Sherard Glover, a member of the city’s fire department, said it is “insulting” that the city does not pay its firefighters as much as other localities in the area.
“We’ve given up most of our time from our families. Our bodies have taken wear and tear. We’re not robots. We’re human beings like every one of you,” Glover said. “It seems as though the administration doesn’t care about us. And it seems as if [the City Council] doesn’t care about us either.”
City administration officials said they introduced an austere budget plan because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the local economy over the last year, particularly tax revenue collection from restaurants, cafes, hotels, venues and other service industry businesses.
In February, the City Council approved a $9.4 million withdrawal from the city’s rainy day fund to help cover expenses through the end of the current fiscal year. City officials earlier in this year also projected a potential revenue shortfall of $37.5 million for next year’s budget, but closed the gap by reducing spending in a number of areas, such as a planned $10 million increase for a retirement benefit fund that usually receives $250,000 annually.
Instead of boosting retirement spending — a recommendation from the city’s auditor — the approved budget provides only $1.4 million for the fund. A resolution the City Council approved Monday establishes a plan to reach a $15 million annual allocation for the special retirement fund in the next three years.
The City Council considered a bevy of amendments to Stoney’s plan aimed at giving more money to special initiatives; restructuring the proposed employee pay increases; and a series of departmental budget cuts, among other changes.
After the additional $2.5 million became available later in the process, the council allocated it to several items they requested, including:
- $580,000 for recreational youth programs in the parks department;
- $570,000 to supplement pay for employees in the Office of the Public Defender;
- $300,000 for a fiscal review of all city departments, including the city school division;
- $200,000 for the city’s civilian review board; and
- $133,000 for a gun violence prevention initiative
The City Council did not adopt any of the cuts that members proposed earlier in the budget process.
Several council members originally sought $1 million for the Public Defenders Office to achieve pay parity with officials working in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
State money supports both offices, but the city gives additional funding only to the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, classifying them as city employees. City administration officials said they were reluctant to support the council’s request to give more local funding to support the Public Defender’s Office due to budget constraints.
Salary data provided by Tracy Paner, the city’s chief public defender, shows that the average pay for city prosecutors is about $36,000 more than for the lawyers representing clients who are facing prosecution and can’t afford legal counsel.
“If you’ve got a prosecutor who has been practicing for 20 years going against a public defender for three years, that’s obviously an inequity,” Paner said in an interview. “What what we’re hoping this will do is help us retain more attorneys for a longer period of time.”
Paner said she is hopeful that the allocation will increase in subsequent budget years.
The Civilian Review Board Task Force, which the City Council voted to create last year summer with the goal of forming a panel that can investigate allegations of police misconduct, originally requested $600,000 in next year’s budget.
Eli Coston, co-chair of the task force, said $200,000 should be enough for the panel, as they do not expect the panel will be established until next March, during the final quarter of the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
With plans to recommend the appointment of an executive director, several investigators and other support staff, however, Coston said the city will need to allocate about $1.2 million to it annually once it is firmly established.
“Two hundred thousand is enough to get it off the ground,” Coston said in an interview. “We’re satisfied with this as a starting point for the next fiscal year since we’re talking about just three months of funding. But that amount going forward wouldn’t be sustainable.”
The adopted budget does not include any of the nearly $160 million from the federal American Rescue Plan the city expects to receive. City Council members have said they hope to put those dollars toward eviction diversion efforts, the city’s affordable housing fund and several other programs and capital projects.