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Richmond to freeze 600 vacant jobs positions under $770.3M budget that includes employee raises

Richmond to freeze 600 vacant jobs positions under $770.3M budget that includes employee raises

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This screengrab shows Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's virtual State of the City address on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Opening statements from mayor Levar Stoney in State of the City address

The proposed budget for Richmond next year includes more pay for fewer employees while keeping the city’s tax rates level.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the economy, the city is planning to leave more than 600 vacant jobs unfilled. The plan, however, includes employee raises starting in October, enough for Richmond Public Schools’ proposed operating budget and new or level funding for other policy initiatives and priorities, such as the mental health crisis “Marcus Alert” system.

Mayor Levar Stoney presented his $770,270,893 budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 in a special City Council meeting Friday afternoon.

The proposed budget is a $26.2 million, or 3.5%, increase over the current year’s, but still less than the budget he originally proposed last year at the outset of the pandemic.

“This is a pandemic-era budget, and city tax revenue projections are still significantly short of what we projected at this time last year,” Stoney said. “While I am hopeful for the future, thanks to the prospect of increasingly greater availability for vaccinations, it should come as no surprise that this budget requires compromises and sacrifices in order to meet our obligations.”

Excluding one-time funding sources, the projected revenue for next year is still $18.5 million below what was originally expected for this year prior to the start of the pandemic.

Anticipating its impact last year, the city implemented a hiring freeze for all but essential positions, leaving about 450 jobs open. The city now plans to leave 600 of its vacant jobs frozen. The number of funded positions in the general fund budget would decrease from about 3,700 last year to 3,100.

The mayor said the freeze allows the city to avoid layoffs and implement recommendations of a 2019 compensation study that found that the city’s employees are paid less than the midrange market rate for municipal jobs.

The mayor said the annual pay of eligible employees, such as social workers, emergency communications officers, public utility plant operators and code enforcement inspectors, could increase by $10,000 to $14,000.

“Our surrounding localities have embraced growth and economic development, and they are investing that growth in their employees,” he said. “It might take us some time to catch up, but for our proud city employees, bringing their average salaries at least up to the market midpoint will demonstrate our commitment and appreciation for their contributions, while we aim even higher in years to come.”

Stoney also is proposing to increase the city’s base hourly rate — referred to as a “living wage” by the administration — from $12.07 to $13 an hour. The budget includes targeted pay increases for police officers and firefighters.

The spending plan maintains an annual $2.9 million contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund, $485,000 for an eviction diversion program and $8 million to GRTC Transit System for public transit service.

“While this budget is limited in its ability to provide for new programming, it does protect the work we’ve started to make our city more equitable,” Stoney said.

It also includes a $1.1 million contribution to the city’s Department of Emergency Communications to begin implementation of the Marcus Alert, a new system intended to let public safety officials respond to people in a psychiatric crisis without police force.

The system is named for Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was fatally shot during a mental health crisis in 2018 by a Richmond police officer.

His name became a rallying cry for local activists last year after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests and demonstrations nationwide.

The General Assembly in a special session last year adopted legislation backing the creation of the system. Stoney and other city officials said Friday that the allocation in the city’s proposed budget would be used to begin training local public safety and health officials for it.

“It is my hope that this collaboration and training will save lives and prevent future tragedies and challenging situations,” Stoney said.

In addition to the general fund budget, the mayor is proposing a $185.6 million capital budget for next year. About two-thirds of that plan is for utilities projects, but it includes allocations for road paving, sidewalks, and city and school building maintenance, including improvements to the Southside Community Center.

The city’s real estate tax rate will remain $1.20 per $100 of assessed value under the budget. Utility rates, meanwhile, will increase by about 3%, resulting in an average monthly bill increase of around $5.27 for customers with water and gas service.

Stoney mentioned that new federal aid may also soon be available.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a new $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package with $350 billion carved out for states and localities. The package would deliver about $159 million to Richmond, according to estimates from a House committee.

Stoney and other city officials said they are not making any plans for the funding yet, as it must still be approved by the Senate, which could amend the measure, attach certain stipulations or reject it altogether.

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