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Budget Shifting For Sept. 21 Eviction Illegal?

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A City Council committee investigating Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's failed Sept. 21 bid to evict Richmond Public Schools from City Hall may begin calling administration officials to testify as early as this week, according to sources close to the investigation.

"Second-tier" administration officials in the city's procurement and budget offices may be the focus of this first round of subpoenas, though the committee's chairman, Chris Hillbert says no decision has yet been made on issuing subpoenas.

"At our next meeting we are going to determine who we are going to call before our committee," says Hillbert, citing some concern over "how comfortable" some city employees might feel in answering questions from council members.

Among those likely to be called is Eric Mens, the city's head of procurement services. E-mail correspondence obtained by Style in its investigation of Sept. 21 indicates Mens worked closely with then-acting Chief Administrative Officer Harry Black organizing and attempting to justify the move to the public.

It was an individual in Mens' department who signed off on a variety of payments to subcontractors -- mostly construction or renovation companies who helped prepare 3600 W. Broad St. as the intended new home of the School Board offices -- without proper authority. Many of the purchase orders were signed well after the move took place, then backdated.

The account from which the funds were paid, Style has learned, was an unused budget line in the city's general fund; a non-departmental category created in 2005 to assist Mayor L. Douglas Wilder in setting up his new administration under the popularly elected form of government. The budget line, with the rather specific title "Interim Transition Costs New Government," was the recipient of $500,000 that the administration moved from a budget-designated Department of Public Works [Hurricane] Ernesto Repayment item. The interim transition budget line had gone unfunded after the first interim year of Wilder's administration.

Funding categories, according to city officials familiar with budget matters, frequently are created with specific, one-time-use labels and then remain as unfunded budget lines for years to come.

The mayor's administration has maintained its authority to transfer funds between organizations within the non-departmental fund budget, but that authority, according to individuals close to the investigation, appears to extend only to moving funds between closely associated programs.

The general fund budget accounts for tens of millions of dollars of the city's overall budget, an amount that, by the logic defended by Wilder's administration, would be available for him to spend at will on projects of his own determining.

Hillbert called that a "pretty big pay-go account" if true.

Language in the budget, which after adoption holds the weight of law, restricts the use of budget appropriations "solely for the programs set forth," meaning that administration officials are prohibited, for example, from moving the $13,000 City Council appropriated for Virginia Cooperative Extension and depositing it in the Black History Museum Matching Fund category. Extending the logic, it would then also be illegal to use the Extension money from the Black History account to pay for, say, the mayor's haircut.

Hillbert says an opinion from the city attorney's office is that Wilder's administration violated the city charter, though may not have violated the budget ordinance, which he called "poorly worded."

That scenario, the source says, is analogous to the Wilder administration's not-so hypothetical move of Ernesto repayment money to the New Government fund, which then was spent on the School Board eviction.

Of the $500,000 removed from the Ernesto account, city receipts obtained by Style show that nearly $450,000 was spent on costs associated with the aborted School Board move.

"It really takes it to another level when you took money from the Battery Park relief money," says Hillbert, in whose district the storm-wracked neighborhood is located. "Of all the categories, to have chosen that one, is difficult."

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